September 18, 2022

Defusing Fear and Anxiety

Defusing Fear and Anxiety

As a business leader, I had to deal with multiple sources of fear and anxiety about Pitney Bowes' future and in a few instances, about a safe, secure future.  One business fear which many of my successors and I had to address year after year was the future of mail.   Since the 1960's, experts predicted that mail would disappear because of the so-called "paperless office," the widespread use of fax machines, the proliferation of emails and the explosive growth of the Internet.  

As it turned out, mail volumes reached their peak in 2008, long after the time decline was predicted and, only then, because of the bursting of a consumer credit bubble that had caused mail volumes to grow artificially between 2001 and 2008.  Pitney Bowes had ample time to develop alternative survival strategies.  That it did not do so was not because of the longer term trends toward more email and Internet communications, but because of strategic choices that might, or might not, have succeeded

My job was to continue to identify growth opportunities and to get the organization focused on exploiting them.  We framed the opportunity this way:  if everything we feared actually happened, what growth opportunities would still be within our grasp?

Three answers emerged:  package deliveries would continue to grow, software solutions based on physical address management would become more valuable, and the Postal Service would need private sector partners to restructure its processing network, since it was hamstrung by political constraints.  

In fact, e-commerce grew faster because of Covid-induced fears of retail shopping. Mail processing partnerships grew.  Pitney Bowes did not invest early enough or continually enough to take advantage of address management software.  But it moved forward on two of three opportunities.  

That way of thinking also applies to responding to other sources of fear and anxiety.  In the Fall of 2001, we had two crises back to back:  the devastating effects of 9/11 on both our Lower Manhattan clients and our employees, four of whom died in the hit on One World Trade Center and the anthrax bioterrorism crisis.  

We convened as an executive team and asked ourselves: what opportunities do these twin crises present in terms of addressing not only our employees' fears and anxieties, but those of our customers?  Our Associate Medical Director Dr. Brent Pawlecki set up a compassion and counseling center in Midtown Manhattan for employees, their families and our customers two days after 9/11 and offered invaluable and inspirational service to them.  That was therapeutic and it was also great business.  

It was not easy to overcome the fear of new terrorist events, especially since, as a single company,  we could not stop them from happening.  But we could take actions, as Dr. Pawlecki did, to respond to the crisis.  We also realized that we could mitigate their impact.  We moved our back-up data center quite far away from our primary data center, so that a single terrorist event could not shut us down.  We look at all the ways we could deal proactively with the impact of a regional terrorist event, and those many decisions empowered our employees.

With respect to anthrax, we ask the same kind of question we had asked about the future of mail:  what opportunities did this present for our industry and us?

As a result, we developed a great long-term solution for federal government mailrooms.  We moved incoming mail processing offsite in a secure facility.  For the House of Representatives, we offered to scan constituent mail and forward it electronically to members and their staffs, a service that almost half accepted.  That service not only allayed member and staff fears, but it made the movement of constituent mail faster and more efficient, especially when an inquiry had to be forwarded to a district office.  In effect, our response to anthrax created a new revenue opportunity.

For the broader public, we delivered three messages to allay anthrax fears:

  • By describing how the public could spot high-risk mail (i.e. stamped mail with no or unrecognizable resturn addresses) and separate it from the rest of their mail, we enabled the public to feel like it could help reduce its risk of receiving and handling contaminated mail;
  • We pointed out that the total volume of contaminated mail was so low that the absolute odds of receiving a piece were 1 in 1 billion.  This was highly improbable, even if contaminated mail were randomly distributed.
  • We also pointed out that anthrax-laced mail tended to be addressed to government or media recipients at their places of business.  The bio-terrorist clearly was targeting a very small subsegment of the population.

The fear of domestic terrorism from foreign-based souces both in attacks on vital infastructure and in fears of bioterrorism was very prevalent in 2001 and 2002 because of 9/11 and anthrax.  Oddly enough, the argument that worked the best for me relative to both was to counteract the view that terrorists were completely irrational and uncontrolled.  They started from a completely different view of the world, but their targets were very rationally selected.  They did not have the desire to attack the American people as a whole.  

One security vendor who told me that the terrorists would strike anywhere at any time and that we needed to retain his services. I referred him to the film The Battle of Algiers, a 1966 feature film that detailed a fictionalized account of a real event, the insurgency in Algeria between 1954 and 1962 that resulted in Algeria securing its independence from France.  

In that film, women sat at outdoor cafes, left behind shopping bag at their tables to use the ladies' room, walked out the backdoor and, presumably, remotely detonated a bomb in the shopping bags that blew up both the indoor and outdoor parts of the cafe.  The cafes were "soft targets," and the Algerians intended a much broader terrorist attack than those terrorists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Towers.  We were dealing with a different terrorist profile, one which, on the one hand, was striking us from halfway around the world, but which, on the other hand, was highly selective in its targeting.

The media and certain politicians had a vested interest in making us more afraid than we needed to be.  As a leader, my job was to ground our employees in reality and get them focused on what was within their control to manage.  

Today, the mass media and politicians are aided by social media platforms that practice fear mongering far more systematically, with the ability to make us addicted to "doomscrolling" sites the way we would be hooked to watch horror films at Halloween or to binge on crime dramas from a streaming service.  The stories depicted  by Hollywood are generally events that almost never happen, just as the fears cooked up in social media newsfeeds are designed to convert a low probability, distant threat into an instant one.  

Leaders need to address these fears, which, according to many researchers cited in The Chaos Machine, a book published by Max Fisher, a New York Times reporter, are deliberately amplified by social media algorithms to increase usage and length of engagement.  Leaders need to design messaging, channels, and trusted sources to address individual segments of their customer and employee populations.

Leaders' words and actions must be credible, convey compassion and a focus on an uplifting organizational mission, and provide support resources for those employees who have been psychologically damaged by their addictive exposure to negative social media.  The company I co-founded MoveFlux and our MakeUsWell Network has developed a platform to diagnose the particular fears and anxieties any target population is experiencing from social media platforms and to develop action plans that will counteract the negative effects of these platforms.

Social media effects on Americans and people who are heavy social media users around the world are creating a growing crisis that leaders of organizations and governments cannot afford to ignore.