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Managing Our Biggest Workplace Threat: Fear

Managing Our Biggest Workplace Threat: Fear

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

How Does Being A Vulnerable Leader Enable You To Achieve More?

How Does Being A Vulnerable Leader Enable You To Achieve More?

Strength, courage, fortitude - there are so many descriptors that one thinks of when we imagine those we would like to follow. In our proverbial march through the darkness which can sometimes be our working world, we want captains to which we can grant our trust. Their shoulders should be broad enough to carry our worry and their voice should be clear, giving us the confidence to feel safe in troubled times. But there’s another important aspect that we should expect of our leaders. We’ve grown more aware in recent decades that leaders should possess a certain degree of humanity and empathy in the way they govern. The focus on emotional intelligence within the world of business leadership isn’t just a ‘feel good’, these attributes have increasingly become de rigueur as we’ve learned that leaders must think and feel and truly care for those in their organization.

But, why should we care about our bosses showing their soft underbelly to the rest of us? And, how does being a vulnerable, authentic, transparent leader contribute to your firm going farther, doing more and achieving the goals you’ve set?

Knowing How Our Leaders Feel Enables Us To Push Harder

I’ve previously discussed the importance of honesty being an enabler for those who report to us. A senior-level leader or manager of line-level employees has an enormous impact on the performance of their teams simply through being open about the challenges we face. This kind of unfiltered truth empowers the right kind of team. But there’s more to being vulnerable than just stating the facts about how we are trending or how many points we need to make up in our comp growth. Your direct or indirect reports want to know how you feel. Why? Because they want to know how to feel. They are watching you for cues. It’s one of the reasons we all look at the flight attendant when the plane we are on hits choppy air. ‘Okay, she’s smiling and chill… I can go back to watching Kung Fu Panda.’ But, what do I do if I look up and my flight attendant has fear in his eyes? Not a good feeling….

At town halls and roundtables I’ve hosted over the years or at those being facilitated by leaders more senior to me, there is one question which is the number one most asked: ‘What keeps you up at night'?’ Why do so many professionals what to know this answer from their superiors? Because those employees are trying to decide what they should be losing sleep over. What matters? It’s us looking at our flight attendant and deciding when we should adopt crash position.

The flow of us sharing our vulnerable transparency looks something like this:

  • Being transparent about how we feel as leaders helps our teams calibrate and explore their own feelings.

  • Understanding their feelings helps them decide how to respond to them.

  • Responding to and categorizing these feelings is a critical part of our teams getting on with the business of doing their jobs.

  • Our teams doing their jobs well allows us to achieve our goals.

The entire process starts with us, as leaders, helping our teams explore those emotions and our vulnerable transparency is the spark that lights that fire.

Vulnerability + Mission Objectives x Alignment = Achievement

Over an 11 year period I had the good fortune of working with Starbucks Coffee Company and experienced what many of us during those years believed to be a sort of Camelot period of our working lives. Incredibly healthy company culture? Check. Reward and compensation models light years ahead of many competitors? Check. Quality and brand standards that were the envy of many other companies? Check. Those of us working in that organization experienced personal and professional growth and felt proud to play a role in a blisteringly fast-paced growth story. But, the train ride wasn’t without bumps. All organizations have problems and difficult quarters. The way in which they choose to handle them is what makes some firms truly world class.

During a particularly critical period for Starbucks, our quarterly results were even more scrutinized than was typical. The company was opening a lot of stores - five per business day at that time - and hiring, training, building… it was fever pitched. By this time Starbucks had built a model that worked and had strong processes, though some weren’t perfect. On an average ticket which is derived from coffee beverages, you can imagine that profitability and margin efficiency are benchmarks that must be protected. Flow through is critical and pennies on the dollar make a huge difference across thousands of units.

During this particular period of time, Starbucks was experiencing some strain achieving flow through targets and this wasn’t a good look for the street. Some difficult calls had to be made - not of the layoff or shortchanging quality variety - but some spending and cost control measures were needed. Who would lead this effort? Orin Smith, our COO, that’s who. Orin was an extremely skilled operations leader and he had worked with the finance teams to do the math and knew what action needed to be taken at store level. The controls and margin improvements would be mandated for every store in the enterprise. Communicating and executing such a strategy isn’t easy. There were considerations for cascading the plan, assurances for the mindshare required of all leaders in the organization as well as processes for ongoing measurement of how well we had implemented the directives.

How did it start? With Orin’s voice.

On a series of calls and voice mails delivered to the leaders all across the organization, Orin spoke personally about why these actions were necessary, how we would go about them, and most importantly, how he felt about the plan. Partners (Starbucks speak for ‘employee’) from every store heard their COO express his understanding for how hard this would be and of his conviction that this was the right thing for us to do as well as the need for us to be aligned. As efforts continued for weeks, Orin gave regular updates and continued to express his thanks and his understanding that these tactics were not a walk in the park to execute. I can remember his voice and his message to this day - vulnerable, transparent, clear, imperative. Orin wasn’t punitive. He knew the partners across the organization didn’t create this gap, but he needed every one of them to help close it. And they did. The company achieved that quarter. And the next. And many more after those. One could argue it was Orin choosing not to just send an email memo that made the difference. He expressed his own concerns and fears, espoused his faith in our ability to alter our course and together, we achieved our goals. It’s a model I emulate to this day.

A Leader Who Is Vulnerable Is Rewarded With Many Allies

Those of us who have led and spent any time understanding our own styles and tendencies probably know how we respond to pressure. When in the trenches, we each have coping mechanisms, ways of processing information and filters for stress. In hierarchal organizations it is sometimes necessary that not every challenge be shared outward. But, in cases when it’s permissible to share some of the inner workings of an obstacle or deficiency, some unintended benefits can be derived.

Think about the skills on a team you’ve assembled. What are their collective talents and what specialties exist within their midst? Chances are you have some potent superpowers within your team. Additionally, some latent powers and abilities could exist which haven’t been fully explored or leveraged. When you, as a leader, share your concerns, the details of a problem or call out a challenge your group faces, you create an opportunity for the skilled people around you to join in the fight. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking ‘this is my company/business unit/market area... I have to solve this! I’m responsible!’. That is unnecessary martyrdom. While we know we bear the burden for the area we lead, we must remember we hired our teams for a reason. How incredible would it feel to share your fears and burdens with your team and lighten the load on your own shoulders? Then, why aren’t you? Often, when we lay out a problem and our feelings related to it, our teams engage their super powers and solutions we never dreamed of begin to manifest. You were right when you told yourself that you’re responsible, but being responsible for your organization doesn’t mean bearing sole burden for your challenges. If you’ve assembled the right team you should be able to bring them inside your problem and they will circle around you, fortifying your position and marching with collective might toward victory.

Are you leading a team, either as an experienced professional or a new line manager and you’ve recognized an opportunity for that team to be more open and vulnerable? Are there results-oriented aspects of your operation that would benefit from your leaders being more skilled at exhibiting emotional intelligence and authenticity to their reports? Get in touch with me and perhaps I can help. I have led individuals and teams on journeys of self discovery and helped them be more well-rounded in their pursuit of guiding their teams toward consistent results.


— Kimball Carr is a writer, owner and multi-unit leader with more than two decades of business experience across a wide array of sectors. He has produced work for print, film and the software world and has contributed his leadership to 3 of Fortunes best 100 companies to work for. As a consultant, he works with businesses and individuals and is currently the co-founder of Grom Coast Surf & Skate, an apparel brand and retail store built specifically for kids. — 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash