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The Ugly Four-Letter Word: Fear

(posted: September 9th, 2012)

This is the first in a series of blog posts in which we will talk about various facets of fear, how it impacts the workplace, and how (and why) we as leaders can change fear into trust.

An Introduction to Fear

What is fear?

We all have different ideas of what fear looks like.

Some people fear taking risks, others fear conflict or confrontation, and still others fear rejection by peers, just to name a few.

I struggle with fear of failure.

I am a perfectionist by nature, as are many of us in the corporate world.

As children we are often taught that making mistakes equates to failing, and that accumulated failure makes it impossible to become successful. Further, failing can sometimes feel like a direct reflection on who I am as a person - When I fail, I'm not good enough, I'm not smart enough, I'm not driven enough.

It has taken me many years to unlearn the lies I was fed as a child, and still this fear can hold me captive from time to time.

You can find more on the related topic of vulnerability here.

"Everybody has their own Mt. Everest they were put on this earth to climb."

Hugh MacLeod

The Four-Letter Word

The point is, we all have fear in our lives. If we all face fear, though, why isn't it more readily discussed in the workplace?

Because "fear" is often viewed as an unmentionable four-letter word.

Talk of fear is received with feelings of discomfort and disdain. To admit fear is to accept defeat. Society at large views fear as a sign of weakness. We are expected to be big, bad, courageous trailblazers.

Overlooking the presence of fear, though, gives it power. Inability to face our fears allows them to grow and multiply until they paralyze us.

Thus, the first step to ridding ourselves of fear is admitting that it exists. From there, we can begin to understand the fear that holds us hostage and create a plan of action to confront and overcome that fear.

"The key to release, rest, and inner freedom is not the elimination of all external difficulties. It is letting go of our pattern of reactions to those difficulties."

Hugh Prather

Facing Uncomfortable Circumstances

Freedom from fear does not involve changing or avoiding our circumstances. Rather, freedom is found when we face fear-evoking circumstances head on. This confrontation helps to release us from our bondage to fear.

"The circumstances of our lives have as much power as we choose to give them."

David McNally

A Choice to Be Made

So, then, once fear is acknowledged and identified, you have a choice:

  • Will I allow my circumstances to define me? OR
  • Am I willing and able to overcome my circumstances?

"Which emotion will [you] allow to be stronger?"

John C. Maxwell, "Maximum Leadership"

Choosing faith over fear is a moment-by-moment decision.

  • Will I choose to face my fears or will I let myself be overcome by them?
  • Do I have faith enough in my abilities, and belief in what I am pursuing to overcome my fears?

The answers to these questions, and others, are what define who we are as leaders and team members. When we understand and manage our own fear, we are better equipped to understand fear in our teams and workplaces. From that understanding we can create environments that help to free our employees from fear, and in the process, create high-performance, healthy organizations.

The Solution

Learning to trust

In Daniel Oestreich and Kathleen Ryan's book, "Driving Fear Out Of The Workplace", the authors discuss the benefits of creating a high-trust workplace environment.

The authors interviewed 260 people at 22 organizations about fear and how individual workplaces handle the fear with which they are faced. In the book, one of the fears addressed is "the belief that speaking up about on-the-job concerns may result in adverse repercussions." An overwhelming 70% of those interviewed labeled this situation as one that provokes anxiety.

Why does this matter?

Anxiety and fear in the workplace create:

  • insecurity in workers
  • high turnover rates
  • loss of honesty, vulnerability, and openness
  • anger as a result of misunderstanding and miscommunication
  • lower levels of creativity
  • lack of concern for the company

Trust has the power to eliminate fear. Trust creates an environment that fosters positive vulnerability among coworkers.

When trust is present, people:

  • do not fear they will be rejected as a result of speaking their minds
  • are willing to take more risks
  • are willing to be open and honest with coworkers and leaders
  • push themselves further, knowing they have the support of their coworkers and leaders
  • have greater commitment to the work at hand and the company as a whole
  • are loyal to coworkers and to the company itself

Anxiety inhibits, trust relaxes and releases. When your teams trust you to support them, they can let go of fear, get the job done, and even create and innovate to make your entire organization healthier and more profitable.

For more on trust, please read my blog post here.

Continuing In Freedom From Fear

In creating a trusting environment, we work toward the creation of a more cohesive group of people in the workplace. Greater cohesion makes for:

  • greater productivity
  • greater efficiency
  • greater concern for the company
  • less detrimental arguments
  • greater appreciation for new ideas and creative thinking

My hope is these tools for overcoming fear will help you create more cohesive teams and more effective leadership within your company.

Over the course of the next four months we will be discussing different types of fears that inhibit growth for leaders and teams, as well as the steps necessary to overcome these fears.

We will also be discussing Patrick Lencioni's "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" as it relates to overcoming fear in the workplace.

I hope you will join me in reading the upcoming blog focused on exploring the fear of conflict.

"Striving to create a functional, cohesive team is one of the few remaining competitive advantages available to any organization looking for a powerful point of differentiation."

Patrick Lencioni

Challenge Yourself
  • What fears in the workplace hold you captive?
  • What tips do you have for dealing with these fears?
  • Do you tend embrace fear or run from it?
  • Do you believe trusting relationships can combat fear?
  • Do you have another way of handling fear in your life or at the office?

Next in the series: Part II - Fear of Conflict

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