Let's be honest. We all feel tinges of fear nearly every single day. It can come from anywhere. A close call while driving. An unexpected noise. An odd look from a stranger on the subway. Or a hard conversation with a colleague.
When we don't deal with mounting fears, like worrying about succeeding on a project at work, we might succumb to unhealthy fear responses. In their work coaching top executives at companies ranging from some on the Fortune 10 to fledgling startups, John Baird and Edward Sullivan--the chairman and the CEO of Velocity, respectively--found that most unproductive behaviors at work (arguments, missing deadlines, poor communication, etc.) are one form or another of the three classic fear responses: fight, flight, and freeze.
I reached out to them on this subject around the launch of their new book, Leading With Heart: Five Conversations That Unlock Creativity, Purpose and Results. To coach their clients around fear in the workplace, John and Edward developed a simple framework to help leaders not just manage fear, but also make it their ally. The process has only four parts, but the genius is in its simplicity.
1. Name your fear and embrace it
John and Edward find that they have more success when leaders are open to embracing their fears. This is not always easy to do, but having a mindset of being open to naming and understanding fear is a good place to start.
Academic research supports the value of facing our fears. In her research on leaders and their strategies for dealing with fears, Tonya Jackman Hampton discovered that when they were able to name their fears, leaders were better able to explore and be open to strategies to deal with them. She discovered that while these fears never really go away, they begin to dissipate as leaders identify new ways to cope.
Leaders who view stressful events and fears as challenges to learn from rather than obstacles that could stymie their growth are more likely to improve their performance. Not all clients can embrace their fears right away. With some, it takes time to break down these barriers and move toward change. In other cases, leaders are unable to face their fears, which can result in the company failing.
2. Share your fear
Once the fear is named and written down, the next step is to share your fear with members of your team. John and Edward often ask leaders to ask a small group of people to provide feedback on whether fear is impacting the leader's performance. These can be team members or others who work closely with the leader.
They usually coach leaders to use an open-ended process that begins with their naming their fears, and then encourages those leaders' teams to share how those fears might be affecting them. When leaders take the time to learn about one another's stories and fears, they are able to understand what's behind unproductive behaviors. By creating a climate of openness and transparency, leaders help their teams to feel comfortable in expressing their fears, as well.
Gathering this kind of feedback helps leaders admit and embrace their fears. After collecting concrete feedback on specific behaviors that they should stop, start, and continue doing, it is crucial for leaders to plan and ask their teams to hold them accountable to changing their behaviors.
3. Make a plan
Fears run deep and are hard to change. Without a plan of action, nothing will change. The plan can be simple and a few questions can pave the way:
- What are you afraid of?
- What are your common fear responses?
- What is the negative impact when you succumb to your fears?
- What are you going to stop, start, and continue doing to make fear an ally?
You might start your plan on your own or work with a coach, but you also have to involve your team to help you expand upon that plan and make sure it is enforced. When you give your teammates permission to hold you accountable, they can point out when you are "doing that thing again." It often takes a gentle nudge from someone we trust to help snap us out of the fog of fear.
4. Tell your story
The final step in making fear your ally is to craft and tell your story to a broader audience. Stories inspire and motivate people, and help leaders connect with their teams. The fears that leaders have are often the same fears being experienced by others. When leaders are vulnerable about their fears and express a desire to do something about it, their teams respond in helpful ways. Leaders who are brave enough to be vulnerable with their teams often crack other people open and create space for others to deal with their fears, as well.
Confronting our fears openly can be hard, especially at work. Most of us were told to "never let them see you sweat" and that showing fear is weakness. We're supposed to have "executive presence" and appear as having it all together.
Yet, hundreds of leaders and a bevy of recent research support the idea that dealing with fear head-on is the best way to handle it. Fear that is ignored only grows. It's the leaders who don't deal with fear head-on who end up with toxic office cultures.
By contrast, leaders who are open and courageous about their fear make it their ally and engender even more respect and trust among their teams.