Fear is corrosive, personally and professionally. It paralyses people and wrecks businesses, if it gets in. In the presence of fear, talent doesn’t rise and careers don’t develop. Good ideas remain unspoken – and everyone’s miserable to boot.
You may think you’re lucky if the workplace isn’t a scary place for you, but fearlessness isn’t the antidote, it’s a psychosis. If you’re not just a little bit frightened, you’re either taking no risks or you’re blind to them. Either that or you just don’t care enough.
Fearlessness in a manager is perhaps most dangerous of all, because it means you can’t understand the fear that everyone else might be feeling. So you shout at your team for coming up with a rubbish idea, then can’t understand why they stop suggesting anything at all. Go figure.
No, it’s courage that’s required, not fearlessness. The best businesses were built with audacity against all odds; the best careers are forged by people who were brave enough to test themselves in the crucible of uncertainty, in the knowledge that they had plenty to lose.
Unfortunately, wanting to brave and actually being brave aren’t quite the same. So what do you do if you’re a bit of a scaredy-cat?
How to manage fear
To be courageous, we need to do two things. The first is the simplest but also the hardest – do courageous things. The more you do them, the easier it will get. If jumping into the deep end seems a bit extreme to start with, however, then you need to find ways of making the plunge easier for you.
‘It’s ridiculous to say we’ll conquer our fears, that we’re going to wake up one day and not be afraid. No we aren’t. I’ve done hundreds of radio shows, TV shows and interviews, but I still had that little knot in my stomach before you called. We’ve got to recognise fears for what they are and manage them,’ says Susan Armstrong, speaker, coach and author of Escape Your Invisible Prison.
Armstrong would know a thing or two about fear and how it can hold you back. The Nottingham native spent 20 years on the street, ‘addicted and abused, the property of a motorcycle gang, eventually homeless’.
‘When I knew that I had to do something was when I realised there was nothing wrong with me, it was my thinking that was wrong, the way I viewed things. In my mind I was a worthless piece of garbage, and I had to somehow change that around,’ she says.
Understanding the source of your fear, and whether it’s healthy or unhealthy (think a fear of backflipping across the M25 vs a fear of giving a suboptimal performance review) is therefore the first step to becoming courageous. ‘You can engage your logical brain and ask what am I afraid of, trace it back, break it down. It won’t lessen the fear but it will make it more manageable. I’ve shortcut my process to "is anyone going to die if I do this?". If the answer’s no, I do it.’
The fear that was holding Armstrong back was rooted in a lack of self-esteem, and she sees the same problem in the Fortune 500 companies where she now coaches. ‘We all walk around carrying baggage. For some it’s to a small degree, for others it’s this Santa Claus sack of toys for children all around the world.’
Much of this baggage contains question marks over whether we’re ‘good enough’, which unhelpfully many of us connect to the idea of job security. If I step out of line, my manager will shout at me and I’ll lose my job because I’m not good enough and I’ll never get another one again because who would ever hire me and how can I survive without a job... you get the picture.
‘There’s a whole body of employees out there who are so terrified that they won’t please their manager and then they’ll be out of work, that they go through their day trying to make their manager happy. Never mind about the customer, or if the manager’s doing the wrong thing,’ says Armstrong.
Building your sense of self-worth and self-esteem matters because it’s all the harder to be brave when you’re convinced you’re worthless. But it too can be difficult to do.
To begin with, look at the evidence, the fact that you have a job, the encouraging comments in emails or performance appraisals. More often than not, Armstrong says, we’re wired to see the negatives and the mistakes, rather than the good things.
‘It’s very hard to do, but you can ask those closest to you what are your best qualities. I remember going to my boss and asking if I was a good employee. She laughed, but I asked for three things. She gave me eight. If you choose one of those things every day and start to notice where it’s true, you will prove it to yourself that you’re capable. Don’t replay your mistakes before you go to bed, find three things you did well instead,’ advises Armstrong.
As with most things, there’s no quick fix to becoming more positive about yourself, but you can make a habit of positivity. Seeking little opportunities to go out of your comfort zone, often, will pay off better than seeking one dramatic transformation.
Even the smallest things can help, if they’re consistent. You can immunise yourself against uncertainty, for instance, by mixing up your routines. Vary your route to work, get a coffee at 10am not 11am, just keep yourself from getting too comfortable.
Perhaps the most important thing is to believe that you have it in you to be courageous and make a change in the first place – whether it’s delivering a speech, applying for a new job, or even getting your life on track.
‘One of the most frustrating things that I hear all the time is I can’t help it. It’s just the way I am,’ says Armstrong. ‘Well, if I believed that, I’d have doomed myself to die in a gutter. They’re your thoughts. You create them, and you can change them. It just takes a little practice.’
Image credit: Dave Pape/Flickr