Author Steve Prentice Explains How Fear Inhibits Digital Transformation

Steve Prentice is a specialist in organizational psychology focused on the interaction of people and technology. He helps people and organizations understand each other, the technologies they use, and the changes that these present. In his new book, The Future of Workplace Fear – How Human Reflex Stands in the Way of Digital Transformation, Prentice puts fear at the center of what motivates contemporary workers. As he explains, what fear motivates employees to do is not always what the organization wants.

Humans value stasis and wellbeing. We reflexively use denial and avoidance to counter any sort of change that might threaten our sense of security. This inevitably clashes with the focus on ongoing “disruption” that is lionized by employers in their eternal quest for improved productivity. Digital transformation within organizations often triggers deep-seated fears of change, of the unknown, of losing control, and of losing our job. While the new tech is, of course, intended to improve productivity, it can become the catalyst for procrastination, avoidance, pushback, even sabotage.

We asked Prentice about the role of fear in organizational psychology and challenged whether he is putting excessive emphasis on it (spoiler alert: he doesn’t think so).

Grit Daily: You say humans are motivated primarily by fear, but humans are also motivated by greed, desire, self-preservation and sometimes, loftier emotions. Why do you put fear, particularly in the context of work in a company, at the center of motivation?

Steve Prentice: I put fear first because I think it is the strongest emotion. Humans are led by emotion first, and logic/rationality second, so emotion is the dominant force. The emotions that directly support individual survival become the most intense, so fear is the response to every stimulus and object in our environment. Danger may present itself as a known (a large animal or an attacker coming at you) or an unknown (what’s out there in the dark?). As such, fear, and its lower forms such as caution, are “always on.” Even when you step into an elevator, your instincts are checking out whether it seems safe to enter this space. 

Greed, I feel, is an extension of fear. Why does someone covet more money, power, property etc.? If you were to ask them outright, no matter what their reply is, a five-why analysis (as I discuss in the book) will point to an ultimate desire for enough resources to feel safe.

Desire, in terms of one person’s desire for another, is part of the instinct for finding a partner for procreation and comfort/safety (regardless of the genders involved). Not everyone consciously wishes to procreate, of course, but I would suggest, with the greatest respect to anyone’s orientation or identity, that the desire to be with another person is based on these two motivations – procreation and/or safety. Love is certainly an extremely powerful emotion, as is compassion, and in extreme cases, love has surpassed fear, for example, giving one’s life to save another. But overcoming fear is not the same as an absence of fear. And examples of this are rarer than examples of people succumbing to fear first.

Loftier emotions are a positive benefit of humankind’s slow evolution from one “hemisphere” to the other – from emotional dominance to rationality. However, we have only just started on that voyage and we have a long way to go, if that is even possible.

I place fear, particularly in the context of work in a company, at the center of motivation, because that is what I have observed. Most employees feel they have very little power, and through other circumstances like debt and family obligations they feel trapped, rather than feeling elated. Fear of destitution and early death drive people to find work, either honestly or otherwise, to make the money that keeps the wolf from the door.

Grit Daily: It is a bit strange, to me at least, to say that fear is a motivator in the context of digital transformation. Don’t you mean that fear inhibits digital transformation?

Steve Prentice: Yes, that would be a better way of phrasing it. I chose to use words like “motivate” because they convey more tangible action on the part of the individual. For example, consciously choosing to avoid learning about password management software, or consciously speaking out against the work-from-home / distributed teams concepts in favor of a return to the office, places the reader’s attention on the individuals. I feel that terms like “inhibit” describe the outcome, almost like using passive voice. This is just a stylistic choice on my part. Fear motivates people to do or not do things. The outcome of this is the inhibition of digital transformation. Semantics!

Grit Daily: Digital transformation has been a recurring feature in my career, which began writing articles on a typewriter for my college newspaper. My alternative to cooperating with those transformations was to be unemployed. Doesn’t fear work in both directions when it comes to a company adopting new technologies?

Steve Prentice: I agree with you. However, if the alternative to cooperating with transformations is to be unemployed, that does not eliminate fear, in my opinion – it magnifies it. When faced with a new technology such as a PC replacing a typewriter, email replacing paper-based mail, or anything else, most humans will be afraid of failing – looking inept and stupid as they struggle to understand how to save a document (1990), how to send an email (1995) or how to create safe passwords (2020). They know they have to do it in order to not become unemployed, but that’s a much more difficult position to be in than is choosing to learn a new technology out of interest. 

Companies, too, suffer fear. Take, for example, the willingness to pay a ransom when locked down by ransomware. It seldom solves the problem – the data remains out there, and often full restoration is impossible. Yet the fear of a company losing the confidence of its shareholders/investors makes it necessary to buckle down and comply. Yet at the same time, if you were to propose adding more resources, including red/blue testing, more frequent backups and overall redundancy to reduce the impact of ransomware and to better track insider risk, that same fear (excessive costs) would stall these initiatives at senior management level. You have to ask yourself, why (five times) are company executives afraid of such costs? It is not because fears such as those listed above are unfounded. It’s because spending deemed as frivolous means someone’s neck goes on the chopping block.

I make these comments based on my own observations. I started my company in 1994 solely based on the disconnect I observed between technologies that were built for office use (starting with the MS-DOS based IBM 286) and the end users who struggled to understand them. Today I just replace the word software with blockchain (or quantum computing or ransomware) and I see the same deer-in-the-headlights look.

Grit Daily: Can you cite an example of human reflex standing in the way of digital transformation?

Steve Prentice: Certainly. The book is full of them, but my favorite still is people feeling they are too small to be noticed by cybercriminals. They will click on ACCEPT without reading, out of fear of boredom or simply not understanding what they have read. They will reuse easy-to-remember passwords out of fear of forgetting them and being inconvenienced. They will eschew MFA for the same reason. Digital transformation is about improving the processes of an environment, but human reflex rooted in fear, will sabotage it.

You may argue that the fear of boredom in terms of not reading an EULA (end user licensing agreement) does not sound so bad, but using a five-why analysis, it too comes down to the fear of looking stupid, of delaying one’s work, or otherwise endangering one’s job by apparent incompetence.

Grit Daily: Are there any points you want to make that I have not asked about?

Steve Prentice: Yes. I think the question “what can be done about this?” and the answer is that management of companies –  especially startups – need to focus on a greater degree of servant leadership to ensure that employees – who cost a lot to attract, interview, onboard and retain – are given the opportunity to overcome their very real fears, and to thrive as part of a team. Many startups (including in decades past) are created by exceptional individuals – driven, brilliant, and indefatigable – but teams consist of people who are not that, yet they can still contribute enormously to a startup’s ongoing success and growth.

I have always considered “management” to be a one-word contradiction in terms. Most managers do not know how to manage. The soft skills behind management and leadership, including empathy, organizational awareness and active delegation, will be the true fuel of successful companies throughout this decade.

Peter Page is the Contributions Editor at Grit Daily. Formerly at Entrepreneur.com, he began his journalism career as a newspaper reporter long before print journalism had even heard of the internet, much less realized it would demolish the industry. The years he worked a police reporter are a big influence on his world view to this day. Page has some degree of expertise in environmental policy, the energy economy, ecosystem dynamics, the anthropology of urban gangs, the workings of civil and criminal courts, politics, the machinations of government, and the art of crystallizing thought in writing.