What are you so afraid of?

We were probably all asked that question right before our first leap from the diving board at our neighborhood pool when we were 6. Maybe someone lobbed that query your way when you didn’t want to join the group for a rip roaring good time on the fastest roller coaster in the park. You know, the one that goes backwards?! And, oh, don’t get me started on spiders….

Here’s the problem - we’re all grown up now and yet, sometimes, we still feel afraid. What’s more, we often feel those pangs of fear in our work environments. Why? Where do our professional fears originate? What should we do about them? Are the fears and anxieties you feel in the workplace normal? How do we understand our fears so that they drive and refine us versus inhibit and define us?

Know Yourself

First, take a moment as you read this and be honest with yourself. If you’re skilled at self-knowledge and comfortable being inquisitive of your own thought patterns, you’re probably comfortable admitting that you, too, have felt fearful in the workplace while doing what you do for an occupation. If you’re less comfortable looking inside the deepest depths of your own psyche, I want to challenge you, stop and admit it. You’ve been fearful, pensive, anxious or worried at some point in your professional life. We all have. For any of us who care about doing good work and contributing in our roles, performance anxiety is completely natural. We should care. We have enormous responsiblities and accountability for results and people. If we weren’t anxious about the gravity of those realities every now and then, there would be something wrong. Acknowledging our fear is one of the early steps in us mastering it so that we can understand how the gravitational pull of fear impacts our working lives.

Categorizing Fear

After acknowledging the realities of our fears and concerns, we next need to build a framework to understand them. Is our fear rational or irrational? Is it personal or organizational, meaning is it internal or external? Is our fear actionable or merely a data point or early warning system we must monitor and periodically assess?

For me, the first step I take in trying to understand if a fear is ‘real’ or rational is to jump forward in time and imagine that fear realized. I play the worst case scenario gambit in my mind. If the giant man-eating spiders that are capable of injecting me with neurotoxin and making me their paralyzed food store aren’t really amassing around me, I can probably settle down and not worry about them. That’s an irrational fear. Conversely, work-based fears, concerns or causes for anxiety might be more important for me to engage with. Imagining the worst case related to those fears helps me prepare for or prevent those conditions from coming to pass. This process of analyzing the origin for disease is important as a quick threat assessment because managing our energy is critical. As leaders we are constantly playing out scenarios and executing our plans. I can’t afford to spend energy on low ROI tasks, so, eliminating non-critical items is vital. Is a key member of my team underperforming, presenting a risk that will impact my business? Is my coaching adequate and am I serving my direct reports to the best of my ability or am I failing them? Are market conditions changing which show a trend of decreasing comps or revenue?These are examples of data points that relate to logical reasons for us to have concerns for our future performance and our concern for those we lead. It would be inadvisable for us to ignore those leading indicators and, as such, this kind of info can create a healthy fear or concern that we should listen to.

Putting fear/anxiety/concern into its proper place means asking questions about the scope of that concern as well. We need to dig deeper to understand how broadly that concern is being felt. Is our fear based on personal insecurity? Are we concerned about losing our job or role because our performance is not what it should be? Is the fear a market or sector wide issue that impacts not just us, but our team, our firm and the industry as a whole? The scope of just these three examples varies wildly and understanding the breadth and depth of your concern is important if you are to manage your fear.

The Big Fear

In the workplace, one of the most common specters we all grapple with is a fear of failure. We may miss our year… We could botch that project... The new territory opening depends on us and we could make a mess of it... This role I’ve worked for is mine now, what if I fail? Sure, those things could happen, and, we could be also wildly successful with all of them. While, it’s completely natural that we have anxiety about the worst happening, we need to give ourselves the chance to imagine the best happening as well. One could argue visionaries like Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey created imaginings of their success which were more powerful than the fear of their failures. Hence, they’ve succeeded, and become role models of the power of mission, vision and purpose. Leaders like these and many others remind us that some fear exists only in the mind. Controlling it or overpowering it with our will to succeed or a vivid vision of our goal can be the key to powering through those feelings of doubt and worry. In this way we can use fear as a pole vaulter uses their tool to carry them up and over the obstacle before them.

For those of us who have been around a few blocks and seen a lot of things, our fears may be hard to acknowledge to ourselves because we believe we are supposed to have all the answers and be the steadfast captains of our industry. But coming to terms with our own fear is the first step to understanding how it can cripple us and taking action so that it doesn’t.

Yoda Was Right  

Now, stay with me, I am going to make some of us uncomfortable.

You’re insecure.

Before you agree or argue with that declaration, follow me a bit longer. The most charismatic people I have ever met, imbued with confidence and leadership gravitas are, somewhere deep inside, just a little (or a lot) insecure. It’s part of being human. We have ego, super ego, millions of years of social conditioning, defense mechanisms, tendencies, you name it. In fact, at your next meeting, sit quietly and watch those around you - and yourself - and try and pick out the actions of those around you that can be directly tied to insecurity and masking their internal dialogue. How do they stand? What is their eye contact? Are they repeatedly tugging on their coat tails or sleeves to keep that jacket fitted correctly? Do they have a verbalization or a laugh or something they do which is a tic? How do they mingle and small talk, or, do they simply remain off to one side of the group? There are thousands of social and group dynamic affectations we all fall into, with many of them being veneers we use to hide our insecurities. Not one of us should ever feel alone or ‘broken’ because we feel these emotions. These feelings are a natural part of being human. It’s vital that we understand these emotions will come and go and we should never allow them to amass the power to begin telling our story for us (or stories to us.)

But, why? Why do I need to understand fear which is based in feelings of insecurity or inferiority? Well, that great business coach Yoda was right when he told his young Jedi learner that ‘Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.' Yoda’s philosophies, not coincidently, resemble those of Buddhist or Taoist teachings and this lesson is a strong one for us to understand. Fear, particularly those fears based on places deep inside us where we feel vulnerable, can manifest in things like spite, jealously, anger and other negative emotions. I have seen entire company cultures destroyed by fear-driven venom just because leaders could not come to terms with their own vulnerability and learn to harness their fears versus allowing those anxieties to poison them. Don’t do it. Feel your emotions, understand them, seek to counter them with reasons to feel strong and confident. Don’t allow your fear to be weaponized.

So, after you’ve faced your fear, categorized it and assured yourself that you are normal, what should be our end game when seeking to keep our fear in check, and indeed, leverage it?

Make Your Fear A Tool

Ever have a warning light in your car flash at you and alert you to a condition you needed to address? How about a pain that caused you to take action and address a health issue? Warnings, while not to be celebrated, are a good thing. We need to be alerted to threats and our fears, some of them hardwired into us since the dawn of humankind, serve as necessary warnings to keep us safe and out of danger. 

In our professional setting, these fear-initiated warnings have a little different purpose than in daily life. Our fight or flight fear is designed to keep us safe. But, in our roles, we are driven and expected to achieve, to cross new boundaries. Stasis and safety are not the goal, growth is. The benefit to leveraging the natural fear we feel is all about living on the edge. If we manage our careers and daily performance in our roles firmly within the ‘green zone’ of our danger gauge in order to eliminate the need to ever feel anxiety, we’re not likely to grow. Growth and breakthroughs happen when we take risk and move outside our comfort zone.   

I’m a lifelong car nut and I occasionally take a dedicated track car to various high speed venues as part of my love of learning to drive competitively and to master high speed car control. I’m certainly not racing wheel to wheel or winning any Grand Prix events, but I love it and there is always a healthy amount of fear whenever I circle a track. While working with an in-car instructor on one of my track events, I asked him about knowing the limits of the track we were on that day and how I should push myself to reach new limits as a driver. Specifically, I asked about losing control and coming off the track, a possibility when doing 130 mph at a racing circuit and one that often comes with a warning to settle it down (or worse) from track officials. How do I drive as fast as I can without ever risking coming off the track and being seen as a hooligan who can’t be allowed to remain at the circuit? My instructor’s answer was simple: you can’t. Had he ever lost control of his car and come of the track, I asked. Sure, a few times. His guidance to me - how can you know your limit unless you surpass it? If fear restrains you to such a degree that you never cross the line of what your are capable of today, how can you be capable of more tomorrow? His guidance was skill-focused as he provided instruction to me that day while also helping contextualize the mindset one has to have to realize fear should be there to guide us, not limit us.

As one of my favorite musicians, Peter Gabriel, says in a brilliant song about fear called ‘Darkness’, ‘I have my fears, but they do not have me.’

Leaders Are People Of Action

When it all comes down to it, why does all of this matter? It matters because as leaders we must achieve results. We are in our roles to deliver value and growth for our organizations. There is risk in all of our businesses, and understanding those risks is a key part of understanding how we grow by venturing into uncharted territory while never allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the threats all around us. Analysis paralysis and other fear-based work disfunctions are products of allowing fear to have too big a hold on our work personas.

Sometimes we have to tell those internal voices of warning and caution to shut up and boldly go where we have not gone before. 2018 was a year of such moves for me and, yes, there were moments I was afraid. But I also did things that inspired and fulfilled me and doing them would not have been possible if I had stayed ‘safe.’

I often return to one of my favorite quotes that serves as a reminder of how I want to live. It actually has a lot to do with countering fear. Attributed to many writers, it’s most often thought to come from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

 “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Take action today despite your fear. Be bold. Be creative. Be brave. Don’t try to be fearless because that notion is foolish and unrealistic. Come to terms with your fear, look it in the eyes and tell it, ‘I see you, and I’m going to accomplish what I came here to do anyway.’

Finally, if you lead a work culture, take action to create the kind of environment where your teams can take chances, face fears and drive their race cars off the track once in a while without fear of reprisal. That is the only way they will ever achieve their true top speeds.

Photo by Leio McLaren (@leiomclaren) on Unsplas