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Is Fear Holding You Back?

“I’ve got to deliver some hard messages to my direct report and it’s been keeping me awake at night.” “The CEO is so out of touch but no one has the guts to sit him down.” “I’m so worried that my boss is unhappy with my work that I’m down to 4 hours of sleep.” “One of my peers is so competitive and manipulative that I’m certain our boss is hanging on his every word.” “The CEO has talked to me about a significant promotion. It’s clear she is happy with my results so far. I don’t know if I should take the new job because I’m not sure I have what it takes.”

All real statements from male and female clients in the past two months. All executives in their organizations. All star performers. All fearful. And I’m certain it has nothing to do with Halloween or climate change or arachnophobia. So I put on my GetReal thinking cap to sort out what is happening here.

Let me unpack what fear is all about first. Fear is incredibly useful to us human beings. It signals that danger is imminent and we should get ready to fight or flee. We experience it in our bodies: our guts churn, our hearts race, our muscles tense, our adrenalin kicks in and our brains craft protective strategies with lightening speed. Excellent. But what if we have exaggerated the potential harm? What if we have told ourselves a story that may not be grounded in the facts on the ground? What if this thing we call fear is actually something else? What if our fear is nothing more than anxiety and self doubt run amok?

When we are laying awake at night ruminating about a tough conversation, rehearsing it endlessly in our minds, we are sending a message to our whole being. “I’m nervous. I might screw this up. Someone’s career is on the line. I don’t want to hurt someone. There are some perfect words (if only I could find them!) I can use to make the situation less awful. I hate this shit!”. We toss and turn and get out of bed and decide we’ll wait and see if this person improves without having to intervene. Our physical homeostasis returns to normal once we have removed the object of our anxiety and life goes on. Phew!

But this is wrong on so many levels. Let me count the ways.

  • The staff person won’t perform better without direct feedback. Nothing will change.
  • Your reputation as a leader will suffer. Everyone knows this person isn’t living up to expectations and it is your job to take care of this. When you don’t do that, people see you as weak/not courageous/not doing your job/ineffective.
  • Your boss won’t be pleased either. See above.
  • You will have let your fears and anxieties rule your actions so the criticism you receive will be warranted.

In Get Real parlance, you wanted the big job so put on your big boy/girl panties and get over yourself. Every day there are encounters that will bump up against what your fears. It is your personal responsibility to stare those down and move past your paralysis to take the actions the organization needs you to take.

Here are some things to think about.

  • Most fears are simply our insecurities. When your brain and body go into overdrive in hopes of running screaming from the room, take a deep breath or two and start a different train of thought. Ask yourself, am I scared or just nervous? How do I think I might mess this up? Can I remember any past experiences that provide insight into why I’ve made such a big deal out of this? What happened to lock me up so much? How can I bring this into perspective? What self doubt do I need to examine?
  • Maybe now is the time to act differently. In previous roles you might have been given a pass but once you are a senior leader you need to step up. Avoidance is not a long term strategy. If you are ready to make some changes, reach out for help. A trusted mentor or confidante or an outside consultant can be very helpful.
  • You need to get out of your own way. You are your worst enemy when it comes to these self doubts. It is probable that people around you have great confidence in you but part of you isn’t buying that. Absorb the kudos and let that inform your self talk. You will still need to do #1 and #2 above but it would help if you let the good stuff in to counter-balance your negativity.
  • The longer you let your fears and anxieties win, the shorter your ascent. I have seen more executives than I care to remember be removed from companies because they were (pick one) conflict/risk averse or unable to address tough decisions or performance issues or immobilized by insecurities. This type of behavior harms the company performance and the morale and few boards put up with this indefinitely.

So far so good. But what about when the stakes are much higher and there is some legitimate reason to be truly fearful? What about when you need to give the CEO some critical feedback (I refuse to call it “opportunities for growth”. Call it what it is!) because it is part of your job (as the legal counsel or head of Human Resources or the CFO) to rein in some poor behavior before it hurts the company?  Here’s what the fear sounds like in our heads. “This could be a career limiting move. Why isn’t the board doing this? Why does it have to be me? Why aren’t my colleagues doing this? Maybe an outside consultant should deliver the message.” Basically we say to ourselves “anyone but me”. It takes a mix of courage, tact and selflessness to have this conversation. It must be framed in your mind and in your words as looking out for the best interests of the organization. It must not be an indictment. It must be behaviorally specific and solutions focused. It must be direct, brief and neutrally worded. It must be followed up some days later with another brief conversation to explore what the CEO is thinking now that s/he has absorbed the information and to offer your support. I’m not going to lie, it’s a daunting assignment and it could go very wrong for you. But I have observed many CEOs get initially very defensive and angry at the messenger only to be reasonable and grateful after some time to mull it over. Done well it can be a career enhancing move.

What I’m saying is that lots of moments at work will elicit fear, anxiety and self doubt. And some of those moments are absolutely scary. But most of them are about our own insecurities and desires to avoid conflict or discomfort. It’s hard to imagine effective leadership without courage, a backbone and the slaying of your dragons.

So look in the mirror and have a serious talk.

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