FOMO and FOBO That Leaders Should Be Aware of

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Fear is one of the universal and central emotions to human existence. Some 200,000 years ago fear helped our caveman ancestors to survive on a daily basis, and it seems to have been an adaptive feature of our cognitive and affective repertoire ever since. Although nowadays we hardly find any saber-toothed tigers, we successfully focus on other sources of fear.

In 2004 Patrick McGinnis, a student at Harvard Business School at the time, invented the acronym FOMO, which stands for fear of missing out. We have all probably experienced it: be it the fear of missing out on a social situation, a new work opportunity, an attractive sales offer, the right moment to say or do something, or the chance to meet someone special. FOMO can be one of the possible reasons behind our ‘smartphone epidemics’ and addictive scrolling – there is so much news out there, we just can’t miss it…

Together with FOMO, Mr. McGinnis coined another term, FOBO– the fear of better options. FOBO is also fueled by endless opportunities and choices but drives us in the other direction from FOMO. When fearing better options, we might experience the so-called ‘paralysis by analysis’ state, which makes us endlessly hesitate instead of taking action. Have you ever delayed or ditched a choice, because there ‘should be something better out there’?!

Although clearly familiar syndromes in our everyday life, I believe they are quite relevant also in the context of global business. As discussed on several occasions in my blog, the current global market is vibrant, ever-changing, full of potential and opportunity… It is a hyper-busy and hyper-connected world that we live in, hence, an ideal ground for the two FOs.

By fearing to miss the right moment, an important trend or opportunity, and thus being outcompeted, managers might take on too many initiatives and ‘run in too many directions.’ Pivoting, growing and experimenting might be good for business, but having a misaligned or inconsistent strategy is not. For example, adding products and services too quickly, spreading business to several new markets at once, marketing to multiple different audiences at once – these are some of the common FOMO-fused business mistakes. On the other hand, in times of big data, available information and constantly upgraded versions of everything, managers can likewise get paralyzed. In such a scenario, FOBO makes managers over-analyze and keeps them stuck in a process of finding yet a better option.

Completely eliminating these fears is unlikely, as our environment implies competition and choices, and it is in our nature to strive for better resources and anticipate dangers. Hence, FOMO and FOBO are there to last, but we can become better at spotting and managing them. As discussed in a relevant FT article, fighting FOMO is in essence about embracing the possibilities to step back and say ‘no.’ It is also about minimizing distractions, which echoes with the notions of deep work by Cal Newport. As for fighting the fear of better options, Mr. McGinnis suggests decisiveness, which is sometimes literally about flipping a coin…

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