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Leading Through FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt)

By April 16, 2021Article

Sabrina Horn, C-Suite Advisor, Communications Expert and Author, Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success.

“FUD” is an acronym from the seventies and eighties that stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.  Back then, the “FUD Factor” was a leading sales and marketing strategy in the tech industry, used specifically to play on a prospect’s fears, uncertainties, and doubts to make a sale or close a deal.  

Today, FUD is used more broadly to describe an undesirable state of mind, especially the emotional outcomes of difficult situations or crises.  It has gone from a scare tactic to something you want to avoid altogether.  FUD affects everyone from leaders to their employees, communities, markets, and entire populations.

As we begin to unwind from Covid, a year filled with fear, uncertainty, and doubt, CEOs and other business leaders confront many challenges: doubt about how or if their employees should return to their offices, uncertainty about how a “hybrid” office/remote model will work, and fear over productivity and profits. Post-pandemic FUD extends to concerns about how leaders should manage their employees, many of whom suffered disruption and unspeakable loss. 

Approaches that work for one CEO and her company may not work for the next and his enterprise. We’re in uncharted territory, affecting both experienced leaders and those new to the top seat.  The now commonly heard refrain, “it’s going be a hybrid situation,” may describe the ballpark in which you will play, but there is no manual to tell you what plays to make, let alone when and how to make them. Hence our shared FUD. 

No CEO is Bulletproof.

FUD can eat away at your self-confidence and self-efficacy.  It can bring overwhelming anxiety, leading you to make bad decisions. Unaddressed, today’s FUD can also prompt you either to exaggerate or minimize the gravity of a situation or delay important decisions.  FUD may encourage you to delay action until you know what everyone else is doing. But your people, your customers, and your investors want leadership. They want it from you, and they want it now.  

As both a founder/CEO and as a PR strategist to thousands of other tech executives for nearly a quarter-century, I’ve had the responsibility and the opportunity to deal with a lot of FUD.  It was always the common denominator in dealing with my own company’s crises (such as layoffs) and those of my clients (product delays, company pivots, and the like).

Leading Beyond FUD.

Here are five hard-learned lessons for unpacking FUD and finding a path forward: 

1) Vision and Mission Alignment.  Have yourself a sit-down with the original vision for your company and its value proposition.  Consider your business plan and goals now. Is everything still in alignment? If there were ever a time to push the reset button or make a course correction, it’s now. This is a moment of opportunity to show leadership, rally your constituents, and  communicate your company’s aspirations and reasons for being. It is an opportunity to tell everyone concerned what will not change, what will change, and what both mean for them.

2) Revisit Core Values.  Your company’s values are what got you this far. Is there something missing? Have the values changed? Going forward, what do you stand for?  As CEO, you are the keeper of core values. You set the standard.  Reaffirming values can be both grounding and inspiring for your staff and stakeholders.  Even for yourself.

3) Know What You Don’t Know.  Acknowledging doubts is the beginning of their resolution. Conquer FUD by seeking information, data, and knowledge.  Convert the unknowns to knowns. Displace doubts, one by one, with facts and with plans based on reality. Get input from employees and customers. In creating any plan, ask yourself these two questions: 

1. Why are we doing this?  

2. What does success look like?  

4) Hope for the Best. Plan for the Worst.  Creating a set of preemptive crisis plans tailored to potential pandemic, cyberattack, war, lawsuit, or natural catastrophe should go hand-in-hand with business planning. You need a set of straw man plans, templates, hypotheticals, and checklists, along with a shelf to keep them handy.  Every genuinely useful plan outlines the protocols, communication responses, mitigation processes, and recovery procedures for each given crisis. Take each plan down from the shelf at regular intervals. Review, update, and revise with your leadership team and Board. Train on them. Drill on them.  Knowing what you are prepared for will help you keep your head when the FUD hits the fan.

5) Communicate Authentically and Frequently. The last year has, no doubt, taught us much about the value of timely and accurate information and about empathy, humility, and the preservation of a sense of belonging.  Showing an openness to new ideas, being understanding, sharing mistakes, and sharing lessons learned—none of these betrays weakness. All, on the contrary, demonstrate strength and build trust. 

Whenever the clouds of FUD are looming overhead, clear them away by communicating the fact-based truths of your vision, values, strategies, and plans. When those clouds are particularly thick and heavy, do so often.  Your presence, reliability, and the repetition of information create comfort in uncertain times.


Pre-Order Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success (Berrett-Koehler) out June 22, 2021. 


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