Overcome the Avoidance Instinct and Learn How to ‘Ski’

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. August 13, 2019
Overcome the Avoidance Instinct and Learn How to ‘Ski’

​Back when I was an employment lawyer, my business card read, "Attorney at Law." Yet I often felt like a different kind of professional: a coroner.

Why? Because each new employment lawsuit meant a workplace relationship had become terminal. What started out win-win ended up lose-lose.

I'd perform an autopsy to see what turned the relationship toxic and why.

After hundreds of these analyses, certain patterns emerged. The most common was people's trust in what I call the "instinct to avoid."

Homo sapiens come by this instinct naturally—Mother Nature imbues us with a hair-trigger threat detector. Out for a walk in the woods, you wonder, "Is that a stick or a snake?" You won't be calmly and rationally analyzing this question. Instead, your threat-recognition system shuts off your reasoning brain. Before anything else, the fight-or-flight instinct takes control. Your body assumes it's a snake until proven otherwise and often responds accordingly.

Over the millennia, this instinct has no doubt served us well. However, I don't think it helps us in today's workplace.

When something goes wrong at work, we naturally fear confronting the person we think is responsible. We wonder, "How might he react if I talk to him about this? He could get mad. He might retaliate." Or we might even think, "He could go to HR!"

This fear is exacerbated in environments and cultures that don't invite or foster open communication (and even ones that allege they do.) If employees have seen others punished for speaking up, why would they ever do so?

Inevitably, instead of solving the workplace problem, the avoidance instinct makes it worse. The problem festers and grows until it becomes unmanageable and finally has to be dealt with, only by now the opportunity for a constructive resolution is gone. Moreover, when the manager releases her pent-up frustrations—"I can't take it anymore!"—the employee is taken by surprise. The exchange is almost always hostile. In the employee's mind, insult has been added to injury, a combination that often fuels a desire to strike back via the legal system.

The avoidance instinct played an important role in every case I litigated. Had the employers not succumbed to it, I have no doubt those lawsuits wouldn't have been filed.

HR as 'Ski Instructor'

As a young man, I moved from the cornfields of Indiana to the mountains of Salt Lake City.

I decided to learn how to ski. It took some time before I got the hang of it. Like almost all beginning skiers, I had to overcome a natural, seemingly self-protective instinct. When about to ski down a hill, I'd look at the downhill slope and fear going too fast, being out of control, and ending up in a heap of ski equipment and body parts. A little voice would whisper in my ear, "Downhill momentum is the danger, so counterbalance it by leaning back toward the uphill slope."

My ski instructor urged me to do the opposite: put my weight forward on my skis toward the downhill slope. That seemed completely counterintuitive. I thought, "Is she trying to get me killed?!"

Yet every time I ignored her advice and trusted my instinct, I went too fast, got out of control and ended up in a heap.

To ski safely and effectively, I had to overcome this natural, threat-recognition instinct. Indeed, I eventually learned to let it serve as a behavioral trigger to do the opposite.

Years later, the close parallel between skiing and dealing with workplace problems struck me. The manager or employee's instinct to avoid confrontation is just like the beginning skier's instinct to lean away from the downhill slope. Both arise from the mistaken notion that avoidance means safety. Yet, in both cases, the opposite is true.

Just like skiers, managers and employees need to be coached on how to convert their avoidance instinct into a prompt to do the opposite, even when it seems counterintuitive. Instead of putting the employee problem at the bottom of the agenda, or even removing it from the agenda altogether, put it at the very top. Head directly toward what causes you anxiety. Confront the problem without delay. Do it directly, preferably face to face, and in real time, with all of the key players present. And do it with a solution-oriented mindset. Ask "How do we fix this problem?" instead of "Who's to blame?"

Put your weight forward on your workplace skis. Create a no-fester zone, and watch how smoothly and elegantly you carve those turns down the slope!


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