Riding the Freakout Train to Nowhere

John Sweeney
The Brave New Workshop

Is there a Freakout Train at your company? Are people so distraught about their economic future that they’ll “go anywhere” to escape or hide? If so, your organization is part of the network of tracks that the Freakout Train traverses with ever-increasing frequency.

The Freakout Train represents the feelings of people everywhere as they try to deal with the fear that is churned up from today’s economy. Everyone seems to be in red-alert terror mode, and they’re desperately seeking an escape. For some, this means figuratively “wearing camouflage” and hiding in their cubicles, trying to make themselves invisible so that they won’t stand out, as if being invisible might protect them from the next round of layoffs. For others, the priority of self-preservation compels them to stack protective sandbags to keep them safe. Still others bury themselves in “busy work,” where repetitive motion helps them avoid thinking about the real challenges we face. Our clients tell us that there is a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of blame-placing. We’re also hearing about the Misery Loves Company groups, where talking bad about the organization and its leaders just helps those in pain to deflect current realities.

It’s Not Just the “Free Tickets”

Whatever the reason, people are crowding onto the Freakout Train in droves, despite its crazy conductor, the emotional pollution pumping from its smokestacks, and the fact that no one knows where the train is headed. They are simply, mindlessly, riding the train to nowhere.

There are definite reasons why people are doing this. First, there’s a “sheep” mentality. We think, “Other people are getting on, so I’d better get on too!” There’s also an odd sense of relief when you’re on the train because you’re giving up responsibility and accountability for where you’re going, and all the commotion gives you a false sense of security. After all, you’re not driving the train – you’re just riding along robotically. Another reason is that people just feel the need to get somewhere else – anywhere else. They think, “I have no idea why I’m leaving or where I’m going, but wherever it is will take me away from the conflict that I feel here! That’s got to make me feel better!”

Who Built this Train?

The Freakout Train may actually have started in good times. Somewhere along the line, the American Dream of “hard work and good living brings rewards” morphed into a sense of entitlement. Today, many people think, “This is America! We deserve unbridled growth! We deserve to lead the world in commerce! We deserve the best of everything!” This led to a skewed picture of a healthy work environment. Let’s face it – progress, by definition, should be hard and gradual. Adversity is the catalyst for productivity and growth. But somehow we lost this reality, so when we needed to call on these capabilities in turbulent times, our change muscles failed us, suffering from a lack of exercise.

Today’s businesses have some things in common with improvisational comedy. The actors always start with chaos – they have no leadership, no information, no strategy, and no mission statement. They have no budget, and things are changing every three seconds. But that’s where the similarity ends. Improv actors focus on maximizing the current moment without fretting about the future. Each scene is about taking whatever they’ve got right now and turning it into something better, more valuable, more creative – and funny.

How Do We Get Off the Train?

In this situation, good improvisers would say, “We think our world looks like this picture.” The first thing leaders need to do to stop their people from boarding the Freakout Train is to create an accurate portrayal of the facts in the scene or the economic landscape. Once the real picture is clear, leaders must restate reality and recommunicate all the things their people do well. Focus on even the smallest wins. Use your core talent. We all need to take off the glasses of the pessimist and put on the glasses of a sleuth, and then peer inside the tornado of radical change that’s in every company’s backyard. We may find that it’s not filled with debris, but with pure gold! In her book, Change the Way You See Everything, psychologist Kathy Cramer says that it’s not whether your glass is half full or half empty. The question is, “What’s in your glass?” What opportunities are in there that our competitors aren’t seeing? What assets can we use? What are we good at? What are we the best at?

Winning in the Worst of Times

Consider the biggest lessons that you’ve learned – as a company and as a person. Did you learn those things when times were perfect, or when times were bad? When we are really good at something, it’s usually because of the things we learned when times were really bad. Therefore, if you believe that the best learning occurs in the least perfect times, then we’re experiencing the most wonderful, opportunistic times of our lives because we’re going to learn so much!

This may sound trite, but in 10 years, when we’re safer, we’ll look back at today and say, “Wow! We learned a lot back then!” The improv expert knows that he can take every moment of a chaotic scene and use it to learn to innovate more, to grow and improve the scene, to serve customers better, and to build a better organization for tomorrow. Rarely do we see this much chaotic raw material in the marketplace. The potential for creative growth is at an all-time high!

Help Your People Get Back on Solid Ground

As leaders, we need to help people see adversity as a gift. The most fabulous idea could be the next one that we have. We need to show our people how to get off that train of fear and help them see frustration and bad news as raw material for improvisation and new opportunities. We need to help people realize that, regardless of what the news is reporting, we have everything we need to do things now. We have our innate talents. We may have an unclear future and a slashed budget, but in a culture of innovation and creativity, we still have a lot to work with.

We need to encourage our people to refuse to take any negative parts of the past with us into the future, because that won’t help us grow or keep positive. When a culture turns dark, some people get angry – but others gain insights that help us move the scene forward.

In the end, there is no more useless and ineffective behavior than worrying about the future when we don’t have facts to form even a hypothesis about what could happen. Be a leader who maximizes every single minute. It’s your job to model “making the most of a bad situation.” The key to getting people off the Freakout Train is helping them see the true picture, guiding them to see the possibilities for innovation, and demonstrating how to use “bad news” as the main ingredient for the next breakthrough scene of your business.