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Working with Fear

When we’re young, our fears tend to fall into a category of safety – whether it is safety from the imagined monster in the closet or a real-life bully on the playground. However, as we grow older and our worlds expand, our fears evolve and can often be not as obvious to us. Fear has a role to play in our lives in serving as that initial alarm that something isn’t right. Where it can become harmful, though, is when we are unaware of how much fear is driving our behaviors and decision-making: both in how we lead and in how our teams operate.

Having awareness of where fear may be inadvertently taking the driver’s seat is a practical way to work with it in the workplace. For example, many of us are familiar with the fear of failure, but what about the fear of actually succeeding? How could that fear be showing up for you or those you lead? For example:

  • Self-sabotage: Individuals with a fear of success may unconsciously undermine their own accomplishments, preventing themselves from reaching their full potential. They may procrastinate, avoid leadership opportunities or be reticent to accept feedback.

  • Setting low goals: People with fear of success tend to set goals that are easily attainable, avoiding more challenging objectives that might lead to greater success but also more exposure to risk. They may downplay their ambitions and not proactively step up for projects that others less qualified would take on.

  • Self-limiting beliefs: Fear of success can be fueled by deep-seated beliefs about one's worthiness or capability. These beliefs may lead individuals to doubt their abilities, feel unworthy of success or fear that success will alienate them from their social circle.

Unfortunately, many of us have been taught to either repress and ignore fear or use it as a way to control others. Fear is a natural response to a perceived threat; when we can identify its impact on ourselves or a colleague, we have important information from which to make decisions around collaboration, coaching, and more. Read on for practices to use for yourself and your team.

Practice for You

Is This Me or My Fear?

The first step to working with fear at work is to be aware of it. Fear can present itself in as many ways, and oftentimes we can mistake fear for other emotions such as anger or pride. Watch the LinkedIn Live clip below for more detailed information on the neuroscience behind our fear reactions. Here are some common ways fear may be showing itself in your work and practical tips to address it:

Fight: An aggressive overreaction to a colleague or situation may be an unconscious fear around feelings toward authority and control. When you feel this reaction emerging, take a pause and a breath. Give yourself the time to ask questions around the root cause for what you’re feeling.

Flight: Another common fear response that is mistaken for a lack of confidence or competency is flight. Fear can cause us to procrastinate, avoid issues or a tendency to leave a conversation. In this scenario, find a trusted colleague for their neutral observation of any patterns in your behavior. This can help build your awareness of an area that might need your attention.

Freeze: The term analysis paralysis could sometimes also be a fear response. Indecisiveness can manifest as never giving a final approval to a recommendation or tasking multiple staff on similar projects without a clear process for collaboration. The freeze response often emerges from a fear of failure – if no action is taken, no mistake can be made.

One of the most powerful tools a leader can have is self-awareness: know thyself. Each of us has our own unique nervous system, and our responsibility as leaders is to know what can trigger it and what we can do to ground it so that our actions are based not on unconscious fear but on our values and intentions.

Practice for Your Team

From Fear to Clear

When we let fear hold us back, we not only limit ourselves but we withhold our unique talents that our colleagues, our organizations and our industries need. As a leader, you can help support a more trusting and thriving workplace by normalizing conversations around fear. Here are three practices you can discuss with your staff that leverage awareness and curiosity to move out of a state of fear:

Ask Questions

When you start to feel fear in a professional setting, sometimes it helps to stop and ask yourself questions. Take for example the common fear of public speaking. What is causing you to feel threatened? Is it the fear of being judged? Of not conforming with the group? These can be valid concerns but ones which you can put in perspective. Unlike primitive times when being left out of the group could be life-threatening, ask yourself is the story you are imagining true? What is the worst that can happen if someone disagrees with your ideas? Then ask yourself what is the best thing that can happen if you take this next step forward?

Train the Brain

Have you noticed that some of the physical reactions when we’re frightened are similar to when we’re excited? Think of a time when you were at a concert or attending a home game of your favorite sports team. Racing heartbeat? You bet. Studies have shown that there’s actually a healthy version of stress called eustress that can help motivate us to achieve our goals. Imagine starting a new job, moving to a new city or traveling to a country you’ve never been to before. Eustress helps us embrace new experiences. Train your brain in situations like this to reframe fear to excitement and see how your perspective can change.

Put the Focus on Purpose

Another effective way to work with fear is to stay focused on your purpose or an end goal. In the example of public speaking, try to focus on your audience and the message you are trying to convey versus on yourself. If you let your purpose, your “why”, serve as your guide that can balance any fear you are feeling in the moment. Another option is to focus on a reward which can often outweigh the short-term anxiety.

A Spark of Joy

One way we can leverage fear is to fuel ourselves, in a healthy way, to move out of our comfort zone. In my case, it was getting on this longboard in Baja, California, a few months ago. The joy I felt riding that wave was made all the more invigorating because I knew I made the choice to acknowledge my fear and go for it.

A Different View

This month I had the opportunity to speak with Rebecca Ward, author of The Paper Tiger Syndrome, on the topic of fear. Watch this LinkedIn Live for a deeper dive on how to work with fear for positive transformation in yourself and your team.

Executive Coaching and Leadership Development


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