There’s nothing wrong with creating "worst-case" scenarios – as long as you don’t attach negative feelings to those scenarios.

When I first heard this statement during a leadership seminar, I somehow knew it was very important and would have far-reaching implications. At that time I preferred to ponder on it later and just noted it down. And since then I’ve realized so many different contexts that it is relevant for…

Think about different situations where you need to make decisions… To accept or decline a deal/an offer; to give honest feedback or not; to hire or fire someone; to escalate or de-escalate conflict; to set up your business or not; to ask for business or not; to quit your job or not… The list is long – pick your own favorite example before you read on.

Because we live in a world with a lot of uncertainty – either because we cannot gather all necessary information; or even if did, don’t have the capacity to process it all; or simply because we cannot see the future – our decision-making is never perfect.

One of the ways to simplify this process is to think in terms of best-case, most-probable and worst-case scenarios. So actually, it’s not that there’s nothing wrong with creating “worst-case” scenarios, it is actually necessary to consider them while making decisions!

Especially in certain industries or functions it is unthinkable not to consider those worst-case scenarios. Think about the credit department in banks – how could you not think of the worst case scenario before you approve a loan? Or imagine a lawyer working on an M & A deal – how could he afford to overlook the worst-case scenario? (Actually, professionals working in areas that need a constant/systematic focus on the worst-case scenarios are at a risk of carrying the same outlook into other areas, such as personal life, where such a focus is not always adaptive – more on this in a future post)

So there is really nothing wrong with working with worst-case scenarios per se. Although hopefully your decision-making is not systematically biased using only those types of scenarios. But what about those negative feelings that we attach to those “worst-case” scenarios? Even though one can think of a number of them such as, anxiety, guilt, sadness, disappointment what it really boils down to is: Fear!

Fear of: failure, rejection, losing a person, losing control, losing self-confidence, losing face, getting hurt, wasting time, not being able to handle whatever happens, not being accepted as we are…

And what happens when you feel fear? Although its impact shows variation among people, in general fear tends to block action and moving forward. It is more likely to keep people in the status quo, whatever feels safer. People become less likely to act on their decisions and gut-feelings even when they think there’s much to gain if they were to act.

Thus, instead of going active to confront a conflict, “fearing” the worst case scenario people avoid talking about the conflict or the person who’s on the other side of that conflict. Or instead of asking for business, “fearing” the rejection, they pass on an important opportunity.

Then the whole rationalization mechanism kicks in to justify their approach to avoid the resulting dissonance – the dissonance from not acting in the direction which could have also ended up in a “better than the worst-case scenario” result.

Another tendency that makes attaching negative feelings to worst-case scenarios even more problematic is that we are actually not good at affective forecasting. In other words, when we imagine how good or bad we would feel following a future event we tend to over – or under-estimate the intensity of our future emotions.(see an earlier post: Time travel: Will I really want to go for a run at 6 a.m. tomorrow? dated 2009-10-01 for more on affective forecasting)

This happens because we tend to rely too much on our current emotions or some similar events that stand out in our memory due to their extreme/intense emotional significance as anchors. The consequence? Inaccurate predictions about how bad we would feel if the worst-case scenarios were to come true!

What’s a better strategy then? Well, the answer is in the title! We need to keep worst-case scenarios free of feelings as much as possible.  And how do we do that, you ask?

  • First, start with best-case or most-probable scenarios to create a positive vision which leads to positive emotions including hope, sense of accomplishment, relief, confidence, pride etc.. When people feel good, their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible, and open to information (Isen, 1987)
  • Then become aware of your emotions as you think of the worst case-scenario. And get clear as much as possible what they are – name them! And ask yourself what’s behind them. When negative emotions remain as generalized unexplained anxiety or fear, it is much more difficult to do something about them.

Here’s an example:

Issue: Confronting a colleague in a conflict

  • Best-case scenario: We’ll talk about the issue, express our disagreements, show respect, stay calm, clear the air, find a compromise satisfying for both. (Possible positive feelings: Hope, relief, accomplishment, confidence)
  • Worst-case scenario: Losing my control, getting emotional, straining the relationship, not getting what I want, losing face
  • Feelings: What am I feeling (specific!) right now when I think of the worst-case scenario? : Anxiety for not knowing what will happen, fear of losing the relationship, fear of losing control and face. Most of the time once you name and acknowledge the emotions, you already start feeling much more calm about the worst-case scenario! As a further step you can ask yourself how realistic that worst-case scenario is.
  • Observer’s perspective: Now that you have expressed the emotions – look at the scenario from a detached perspective, from an observer’s perspective. That is the perspective that would help with effective decision making. Now you can evaluate the scenario much better as you weigh its pro’s and con’s and hence, how “bad” it really is and finally how is probable it is. The data you have is not “confounded” by the negative emotions anymore.

Again, trying to make worst-case scenarios emotion-free doesn’t mean that we should suppress or ignore our negative emotions. On the contrary, emotions are  very valuable in decision making, they are signposts that signal what we are not sometimes able to pick up at the conscious cognitive level. Reflecting on them gives us a wealth of information about our needs, motivations, un-explored assumptions. This is why I suggest that you name the specific negative emotions you are experiencing when you think of the worst-case scenario. What I am arguing is that they shouldn’t be an obstacle in effective decision-making as they become an ingrained but unexplained part of the worst-case scenarios.

Getting used to “detaching” the negative emotions from the worst-case scenarios might and probably will take sometime and effort. This is true especially if you are someone who is not comfortable with working with your emotions; or if you believe that you never rely on them in your decision-making anyway. In that case, you would gain even more by reflecting on the emotional level of decision making because it means that so far your emotions have been influencing your decisions without your control!

„I am able to control only that of which I am aware. That of which I am unaware controls me. “  ~ John Whitmore

Isen, A. M. (1987). Positive affect, cognitive processes and social behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 20, 203-253. 

This entry was posted in Automatic processes, Cognitive biases, Controlled processes, cost-benefit, decision-making, emotions, self-awareness, Self-limiting beliefs. Bookmark the permalink.

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