By definition, a strategic initiative is an “experiment” and, as Jeff Bezos once said, “If you know it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.” Wherever there is uncertainty there will be anxiety. But a common way to deal with anxiety is to avoid it. This highlights a conundrum that strategic initiatives present: in situations where greater awareness is most needed there is a powerful force at play that compels people to lose their awareness and “dance around” in order to avoid critical issues. This behaviour is part of a sophisticated protection mechanism that renowned psychologist Edgar Schein refers to as “survival anxiety.”We all “avoid” to varying degrees. It is part of our human nature. The problem is that when pursuing a strategic initiative, we often need to deal with difficult issues in order for the initiative to succeed. Avoiding these difficult issues can undermine the initiative and, in the worst case, lead to its failure.By gaining awareness of the act of avoidance, people in leadership roles can minimise this dysfunctional behaviour. We say “minimise” to emphasise the fact that avoidance is not something that leaders should strive to suppress or eradicate. It is a deeply ingrained human behaviour and an important signal to keep us alert to what is going on. This “signal” quality of avoidant behaviour can be harnessed to make us more effective.Don’t avoid itWhen avoidance in a group is low, it is because the leader is aware of this dynamic and knows how to address it. By acknowledging the fear associated with the strategic initiative, the leader encourages people to acknowledge their feelings, express their concerns and, as a result, to be able to move on in an informed manner.If the leader fails to spot or acknowledge the existence of avoidance, it doesn’t just go away. Rather, it continues to operate subversively below the surface, becoming detrimental to the strategic initiative. But it’s not easy. For those who are “avoiding”, their behaviours seem rational and justified. The “illusion of rationality” is one of the pernicious dimensions of avoidance.In a real life example, we saw how an unconscious or semi-conscious push to avoid dealing with challenging issues undercut a strategic initiative.