Recently, I was involved in a conversation with co-workers about the rapid pace of change in our world. The group had been watching the news and noted an increase in violence against police officers. This aggression against authority is definitely a change, at least in the United States. Times change rapidly, and technology is fueling the fires both good and bad.
I have been an IT executive for almost twenty years. My colleagues knew that prior to my current career, I had been a police officer. During my 13 year tenure as a cop, I had been a victim of a sniper who purposely set out to gun down a law officer. When my injuries forced my early retirement from the force I retooled and gained IT skills. In our conversation, my colleagues came to the question I am most often asked. How did you transition from police work to corporate IT? There seems to be no parallel connection. I offered that being successful in IT is about being successful with people. My sniper incident led to the discovery of some “truths” about people that serve me very well in business. One, scared people can be dangerous. Two, responding to fear with fear leads to bad outcomes. Three, victimhood has a short life span. Four, you thrive on your own desire to do so. Five, your choices determine your outcome. I would like to draw some parallels and share these particular “ truths” from my experience.
Scared People Can be Dangerous
The most dangerous situation for a police officer is the routine traffic stop. Why? When an officer pulls a vehicle over, they have no idea what they are about to encounter. Furthermore, the driver is not familiar with the officer approaching their car, and may be confused about their reason for the stop. Although, they should have an expectation of a safe and professional encounter, they may be uncertain. If the occupants of the vehicle make movements that arouse the apprehension of the officer, the officer may react in fear. The more scared a person is, the more dangerous the situation. The likelihood of a good outcome decreases as the fear element increases.
In my sniper situation, the suspect had lost his job, his home was in foreclosure, and he was under indictment for abuse. He was afraid of having no money, being homeless, and going to jail. It was scary for my partner and I as we did not know the suspect’s fears and did not know what to fully expect as we responded to the call.
In the business world, the conditions are different but the principle is the same. Every day that we come into the office we face the potential of dealing with someone who is scared. We always operate on less than complete information just like the officer pulling over a car. We don’t know what pressures have been put on those around us; or, intimidation that they may be feeling. People usually don’t admit that they are afraid. They may deny that any action or reaction was based in fear. They often do everything they can to show the opposite; and, sometimes, they act aggressively or “bully-ish” in an attempt to hide fears.
Many types of events in the current business environment can spark fear. Technology changes faster now and with that people become afraid of obsolescence. It has become increasingly common for companies to merge and divest. People, however competent or well liked will lose their jobs in these situations. We may not know if the leadership is engaged in merger talks, downsizing, or budget cuts. Working through these situations is difficult. Navigating this with people who are afraid of losing their jobs is even harder. They may be aging, inexperienced, or lack the right education to easily find their next role. They are afraid of the unknown; and, they will defend their job, their territory, and their ideas. Scared people can act irrationally. If you are not paying attention to this fact or if you become increasingly fearful because of the activities and irrational behavior around you, it can lead to bad outcomes.
Whether being a cop facing a dangerous suspect or a business leader seated at the executive staff table, I have learned that it’s important to get an understanding of what might be making a person feel afraid. If we can understand why a person perceives a threat, we can identify effective solutions to address the situation. If we ignore the element of fear, we may find ourselves involved in an irrational and unproductive encounter. We can get “outmaneuvered”, and can get hurt professionally. People who operate from a position of fear are dangerous.
Responding to Fear with Fear Leads to Bad Outcomes
I have read much about the “EQ” (Emotional Quotient) through the years. Lately, many sources I’ve read are about “intra”personal relations, and getting a grip on your own emotions so that you don’t let fear hold you back. There seems to be less focus on “inter”personal relations and understanding the emotions of others. This is the more difficult skill to master because people often spend a lot of time learning appropriate business “behaviors” that can help them mask underlying motivations of fear, narcissism, or machiavellian tendencies. As I watch the incidents of police officer involved shootings increase, and the concern over unarmed suspects being needlessly shot, it seems to me, based on my experience, that the pundits and public at large, forget that police officers are human and they get scared too.
Police are trained and equipped, and there are over 3 million critical incidents handled effectively every day in the U.S.. Despite that, when police involved shootings occur, it is often determined after thorough investigation, that the suspect made some move, or acted in some manner that caused the officer to feel threatened. If the officer is not prepared, is hypersensitive, or has an underlying fear rooted in prejudice, the outcome can become an “unjustified” or perceived “unjustified” shoot. The officer feels a need to protect theirself. To a bystander it appears to be overreaction, ill intent, or abuse of power. The fear reaction and abandonment of their training (which is to remain calm and follow through escalation protocols) has caused a bad outcome.
Fear on fear produces a bad outcome in the workplace as well. Whenever I was unsuccessful in business endeavors I have looked back and realized that my own fear got in the way. I remember having to attend executive staff meetings once a week with a peer who seemed to launch at and belittle any idea I brought up. I knew she presented her bulldog style as being honest, discerning, and challenging in a positive way (the whole brutal honesty concept – sometimes people who are brutally honest enjoy the brutality more than the honesty). It seemed that she was afraid the boss would like my ideas over hers and I would supplant her. There we were. She was scared of my ideas or that my ideas would elevate me above her in the boss’s eye. She attacked. I was scared that she was trying to intimidate me and everyone would see that it was working. I retreated and looked unprepared or got defensive. I defended my position, not with data and facts, but with emotion. I began to present all of my ideas in a manner that said “ You guys are not going to like this anyway but…” … Well, as you can imagine, I didn’t have much success.
I failed to confront my own fear and admit I was scared. I failed to find a constructive way to address what I believed was her fear response. I was afraid to take her aside and build a relationship and lessen her fears. I needed to defend my ideas with data. I needed to put her at ease, build a relationship, and find a way to include her and collaborate. If I had done that, it would have either lessened her fear or at worse she would have proved herself to be an office bully. I was a victim because of both of our fears. In the end there were no “winners” because my fear response to her fear behavior made a bad outcome.
Victimhood Has A Short Life Span
My sniper attack had made me an instant hero. It also made me a victim. I had stepped in front of another officer and took bullets to save a life. I received a great deal of special attention for being a hero and a victim. When I was recovering from my wounds I had some of the best occupational and physical therapists you could imagine. There were days when I didn’t feel like going through the paces and rigor of rehab. I kind of liked being a victim. I enjoyed free cable TV, people brought gifts to the hospital, and people waited on me. My therapists listened to my complaining and were generally compassionate. However, they were also there to stop my excuses. They told me to stop whining and try as hard as I could. They knew the more I pushed and kept a positive attitude, the more I would progress. They would not let me wallow in self pity or be afraid of failure. I am forever grateful for that lesson. I was a victim; but, there was a limit on my victimhood. Eventually my friends, family, and co-workers expected me to “get on with it”. Taking their cue, I was determined to make a new life.
Things happen in the workplace that make us victims. People who act out of fear create victims. Have you ever worked for a narcissist? They’ll make sure you do their work, sometimes on nights and weekends, and keep you from having access to others so that they can take credit for your hard work. Maybe you have been sexually harassed at work, or get paid a lesser salary than others while doing the same job. These things do happen. There are bona fide victims of workplace harassment of all types.
If you are being victimized, address the issue appropriately and move on. Don’t spend time rehashing events with co-workers or bad-mouthing the person that wronged you even if they were acting out of fear and doing things that harmed you. Don’t keep bringing it up as a reason you cannot succeed today. No matter what happens to you, no matter how unjust, there is a limit on sympathy. People will eventually treat you with the same negative energy you are bringing forward. You have to do what you can to address issues and move on without it becoming a part of your “ fear” makeup. We all have baggage. We all get gun-shy.
You Thrive On Your Own Desire To Do So
I can remember very clearly staggering around, covered in blood, ears ringing, in unbelievable pain, with a radio lost somewhere in tall weeds. I was alone despite an officer down next to me and one running toward the scene. I was thinking, “Nobody is coming to get me, I am surely not dying in this backyard this way. I have to defend my friends and get us home.” In that moment, it was up to me. Sometimes in the office, it can feel that way.
Someone can blindside us, steal our ideas, take credit for our work, or just in general take the low road. I have had friends joke that the office was “ Game of Thrones”, “Survivor”, “Real World” whatever the reality show metaphor means that the workplace can be scary.
When you feel alone in a situation, feeling threatened and vulnerable, you have to decide to survive. You have to acknowledge your fear, account for it, and purposefully tell yourself to not react with a fear response. When I get blindsided at work I question my own emotions. Am I responding with fear? I also question ”my assailant’s” motive. Are they afraid? What could they be afraid of? I then look for constructive ways to deal with the issue. I collect data, consult with people I trust, and take positive steps in a calm, competent manner that will help me navigate the issue. The goal is to gain an ally rather than an opponent.
We take it for granted that effective interpersonal communication is the norm at work. Think about how many times you or your co-workers may have ineffectively responded. Could the response have come from a position of fear? Look around you and see if there are “opponents” or teams of “combatants” in your office that seem to be protecting themselves because they are afraid. Choosing to thrive may simply mean standing up to someone who intimidates you. It could also mean having an exit strategy, retraining yourself, or reporting an incident to HR. You are in control of how you thrive in a merger, acquisition, a firing, or a dirty player at work. Have the desire to create and build healthy and effective interpersonal relations so you and hopefully everyone else involved will thrive.
Your Choices Determine Your Outcome
On that very hot summer night, I made a choice not to die. I chose to not die in that back yard, not that way, not at the hands of that person. Moving forward I also chose to not remain a victim. Once you believe, and know with certainty, that you thrive on your own desire to do so, you will realize that you have choices. You can choose to hope that someone else will fix your issue. You can choose to stay in your current situation, or you can take corrective actions. As for me, I chose to forgive my sniper attacker. In business I forgive those who have failed me, I forget and forgive bosses that have disappointed me, co-workers who were small, and I celebrate the people who were truly with me.
To be successful, you can’t assume the negative in people that are being irrational or self-serving. The world is changing rapidly all the time. Assume that they have good intent, but that they are scared of something. You can’t allow yourself to respond to fear with a fear reaction. Fears (your own and others) can be eased; and, difficult scenarios can have positive outcomes with a little cautious compassion, planning, and careful introspection. Think about how many dangerous traffic stops are successfully handled by trained police professionals. Everyone can successfully survive and be happier if they choose.
I think my lunch friends thought it was a cool answer when they asked me “ how did you transition from cop to IT Guy?” It’s about what I learned that could be re-applied in a new situation. In light of the fast paced changing of the corporate world today (mergers, acquisitions, outsourcing work to low cost countries), there are some key “truths” that I learned from my sniper incident. They have helped me understand what I can and cannot control. They have helped me successfully navigate today’s rapidly changing business climate. I have friends right now who face uncertain times. If this post provides some guidance and encouragement I will consider it having served its purpose.
Jimmy Gerber is Managing Director of the application lifecycle management practice at Bayforce. He specializes in improving RoI through streamlining IT practices and transformational IT management. He is a retired police officer and a Valor Award Winner, which is the police equivalent to the military’s congressional medal of honor. You can reach Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.