“Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep. It starts when you’re always afraid.”
Those aren’t just lyrics to Stephen Stills’ rock classic “For What It’s Worth.” They describe the deep suspiciousness and distrust that many leaders and entrepreneurs feel at some point in their journey.
Paranoia that becomes a serious psychosis or prevents daily functioning should, of course, be treated. That’s not what we are talking about.
For most leaders, the condition is evident in sleepless nights worrying that something has been missed that will disrupt your operation. It is fueled by feelings that others are out to get you. It lurks just below the veneer of confidence you present to the world.
Some leadership “gurus” tell you that positive self-talk and motivational encouragement will equip you to ward off the fear and distrust. I suggest a different approach – you should adopt and exist in a perpetual state of positive paranoia.
What’s Positive About Paranoia?
Paranoia, as defined by Merriam Webster, is “an unreasonable feeling that people are trying to harm you or do not like you.”
The difference between positive paranoia and the destructive version typically associated with the condition is the word “unreasonable.”
A perpetual state of positive paranoia embraces the reality that there are always changes and circumstances that will derail your success. It is reflected in this quote from Herb Kelleher, co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines: “I have predicted 11 of the last 3 recessions.”
In today’s world, not being a little suspicious and distrustful about the competition and their efforts to disrupt you is probably one of the most unreasonable things you can do. Here are three ideas for maintaining a level of suspicion that will help you flourish in the midst of uncertainty and upheaval.
Understand the fear don’t disparage it. You’ve been told that FEAR stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. No one wants to live that way. It makes you feel weak. The implication is that you should steel yourself and charge ahead.
What you have been told is wrong. Fear can be based on false evidence, and it can also save your life. It is up to you to determine if your fear is rational or plausible. Practicing positive paranoia acknowledges that your feelings of fear are real. Only then, can you determine if they are legitimate.
Channel your worry in the right direction. There is a crucial distinction between creating a sense of positive paranoia and allowing distrust to destroy your organization. In dysfunctional organizations, disagreement is viewed as disloyalty. Managers wield power through intimidation that creates debilitating fear. They compete internally with other departments or colleagues rather than externally with other organizations.
The best leaders and organizations, on the other hand, create a culture that worries about and prepares for external change and disruption. Most important, they cultivate a high degree of trust within the team so that aligns everyone around purpose, vision, and values.
Change your thinking on stress. Stress in the workplace is linked to an estimated $200 billion per year in costs from absenteeism, turnover, workers’ compensation, and other related expenses.
Paranoia – even the positive kind – creates a level of stress, and stress is bad. So that means all stress should be avoided, right?
Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal says that your belief that stress is harmful has a greater impact on death from stress-related causes than the actual level of stress itself.
Your job as the leader is to manage your own mindset – and help others manage their mindset – in a way that finds the opportunity created by uncertainty.
Think of it this way. Wind the strings on a guitar too tightly and they break. Place no stress on them, and they make no sound. The music happens when a guitar’s strings are stressed to just the right levels.
Uncertainty and upheaval are everywhere. Just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean that someone is not out to get you. The question – for what it’s worth – is whether you will allow paranoia to strike deep, or will you use it as a positive tool to flourish?