Healthy paranoia can work to your advantage
COMMONNESS - Bong R. Osorio (The Philippine Star) - December 15, 2014 - 12:00am

Your mind is working at its best when you’re being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity.

— Artist Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall

The country was still fresh from the anniversary of the massive devastation of typhoon Yolanda when PAG-ASA (the Philippine Weather Bureau) started preparing for a worst-case scenario involving yet another super typhoon named Ruby (with international name Hagupit). Ruby pussyfooted but, apprising the aftermath of her prolonged presence, PAG-ASA unquestionably established itself as a first-rate weather forecasting organization. Its most critical estimations about this weather disturbance proved to be spot on.

Most Filipinos agreed there is no question about the preparedness in the way the country faced off with the danger posed by Ruby. The government’s zero-casualty approach in managing her has brought a high level of admiration from the international community, prompting the executive office to proclaim that the Philippines is surfacing into “a culture of preparedness,” with local and national governments pulling together to avert tragedies and devastations. Truly, the government merits a big and hearty congratulation for the way Ruby was handled. And, agree with it or not, the power of prayer also worked. Filipinos asked for heavenly interference to protect the country, and as you know the storm quickly turned from a harsh typhoon to a tropical depression and eventually spared Metro Manila from its worst havoc. For most analysts assessing the post-typhoon upshot and government response, there was evidently a happy blend of reprieve and self-respect.

The “culture of preparedness” worked, but the handling of “Ruby” can also be looked at as a case of “healthy paranoia” — believing that it’s better to have fear, and with the fear and danger that goes with it, to over-prepare for the worst. And over-prepare the country did, covering all the fronts that its logistics and resources could cover and sharing all data it had so the citizenry were kept informed and updated.

Healthy paranoia is dealing with life realities in an optimistic way, but not closing your eyes to reality. It’s striving to be a positive thinker and preferring to be simply geared up in case things go awry. The principle is captured in the famous line, “Just because you believe they’re ‘out to get you,’ doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” — a situation where you acknowledge that you generally worry too much about people trying to harm you, but also believe, in a particular circumstance, that people really are trying to harm you.

Experimental social psychologist and organizational behavior professor Roderick M. Kramer says: “In extremes, paranoia poisons almost every aspect of the workplace. People spend enormous amounts of time trying to figure out how to decode what’s really being said — or left unsaid. Rumor and gossip become preferred routes of communication, resulting in arid meetings during which nothing gets resolved because nothing is ever openly analyzed or discussed. The result is an organization run by a series of covert operations.” But there is a way to reduce the vulnerabilities, and Kramer pushes for the espousal of what he labels “prudent paranoia” — a concept synonymous to “healthy paranoia.”

Prudently paranoid individuals or organizations monitor their every move, scrutinizing and analyzing each action in minute detail. “They are aware that those around them harbor powerful — and often conflicting — motives for the things they do,” Kramer underscores. By stirring a sense of present or future danger, prudent paranoia provides an early warning system for people’s minds, prompting them to investigate and evaluate more information about their state of affairs. It can also serve as a vigorous protection against a real external risk.

While there are severe medical cases of paranoia, it’s actually an everyday affair. It starts when a crisis creeps in or something troubling or unforeseen happens — the death of a boss, the loss of a big client, the rumor of layoffs, harassments in the workplace or labor union unrests. Such occurrences create uncertainty, and you handle the unknown by trying to give meaning to them. “That mental processing sets in motion a common psychological reaction known as ‘hyper vigilance.’ Suddenly, to make sense of things, you start paying close attention to everything going on around you,” Kramer elucidates. Sigmund Freud’s voice can be added to this view, when it says, “The paranoid person does not project onto the sky, so to speak, but onto something that is already there.” In other words, rather than being crazy, the paranoid individual — particularly someone who is “prudently paranoid” — is “actually an extremely keen and often penetrating observer.” He has an elevated emotional intelligence, which in large part consists of reliably paying attention to what’s happening in his environment and responding to it. It comes about not because he is anxious, but because he finds himself in situations that are themselves alarming.

Entrepreneur and venture investor Adam Callinan proposes, “Keep a healthy level of paranoia with respect to the processes and procedures that you develop as you execute your ideas and plans, as it’s the unintended consequences, or outcomes that you never saw coming, that can tear it all apart.” Although there is no fail-safe structure to determine just how much paranoia is enough, both Kramer’s and Callinan’s explorations put forward the following steps to make paranoia more prudent and helpful.

• Ensure you have all the facts — and not just the facts you want to hear or those that are handed to you. In other words, gather data persistently. Paranoid people suffer from what psychologists call a “confirmation bias” — they look for evidence to confirm their most sinister hypotheses or feared expectations. Prudently paranoid people counter this tendency by trying to learn everything they can about what is going on around them. They keep their radar on at all times and always do a full sweep.

• Leave a margin for error in your interpretations of data. Consulting with trusted advisers will help. Collecting data is important, but the way you interpret that information will determine how prudent you are. Challenge your interpretations. You will be more effective if you are deliberately and particularly suspicious of brilliant theories that explain every possible fact. Avoid jumping to conclusions, even when it appears that you have all the information.

• Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies even closer. Embrace your enemies, as prudently paranoid people will. One of the best ways to avoid being blindsided is to have dependable counselors and supporters who will safeguard your interests. But that isn’t enough. As US President Lyndon Johnson retorted when asked why he didn’t fire an erring FBD director, “If there is an elephant loose in the jungle, it’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

• Trust the shuffler, but cut the deck anyway. This is an apt metaphor when dealing with competition or an adversary. You can be seen as easygoing and trusting, and people will immensely like you for that liked people immensely and you will want to like them for that. But you shouldn’t lose your prudent paranoia hat. So while it seemed as though you trusted your antagonists, you should always guard against any trickery when dealing or negotiating with them.

• Be unpredictable. Leadership books nowadays center on the value of being sincere. Being earnest, clear and consistent are certainly effective leadership qualities, but unpredictability can also be constructive, particularly when dealing with potential enemies. Unexpected behavior can push the other guy toward toxic paranoia, undermining his strategy and sense of security.

• Disregard all the rules. Even the best-trained observer of human nature can make mistakes. That’s because people can be different from what they seem. Sociopaths, for example, are masters at inculcating trust and a feeling of security. Following all the rules can also lead to a false sense of security. Real leaders know when to forget the rules and go with their instincts.

• Ask “what if” questions constantly. As Murphy’s Law dictates, “If it can go wrong, it will.” So as you develop and build out every aspect of your business you must constantly ask yourself, “What if?” and realize that it’s the problems that you could not possibly have imagined that will do the most damage. 

• Proactively build your solutions. Being paranoid doesn’t do you any good as an entrepreneur if you’re not effectively using it to solve or prepare for problems. You must build your company’s processes around all the potential outcomes and include solutions, with the word “proactive” at the forefront of thought. You must create solutions to the problems before they exist. As former Intel CEO Andrew Grove famously liked to remind his employees: “Only the paranoid survive.”

“Paranoia is just having the right information,” American novelist William S. Burroughs declares. It can be educational if used in the right doses. It is a skill that can allow you to plan and execute well.

 * * *

 Email bongosorio@yahoo.com or bong_osorio@abs-cbn.com for comments, questions or suggestions. Thank you for communicating.

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