Management: Is Fear Killing Your Career?

 

We live and work in an era of rapid change, violent disruption and great uncertainty. And yet, company owners, leaders and employees alike must learn to productively coexist with fear if we’re to achieve any measure of career success.

Just as organizations must be bold, agile and constantly reinventing themselves, so must the individuals who lead and work in them. That means no matter how tempting it is to freeze like a rabbit in the shadow of a hawk, we can’t afford the luxury. Hiding out in a state of fear for too long will kill a career.

The good news is, once we’re aware that fear is holding us back, we can take action to overcome it. It’s not always easy, but facing our fears and living to tell about it is always the path to personal growth.

Of course, a certain amount of fear is useful. It prevents us from acting rashly and making ill-advised decisions. That’s why it’s not always easy to know when you’ve crossed the line between common-sense caution and career-squashing fear. Watch out for the following red flags:

You hold back your good ideas instead of speaking up. When you are about to voice your opinion, do you often stop yourself, afraid of what others might think? A sales manager at a large retail store had a great idea for how to improve a key process in her department, but she kept it to herself. When I asked her why she didn’t mention the idea to others, she said, “I’m always thinking: What if my boss disagrees? What if I’m overlooking a crucial detail? What if they implement my idea and something goes wrong?”

You procrastinate on the big stuff. Have you put off acting on important priorities, letting the task slip to the bottom of your to-do list for days, weeks, or months on end? This can be a sign that you fear you won’t do the task well, or that it will backfire somehow.

You perpetually play it safe. Do you find yourself taking the safest and least controversial actions at work, even when you know that the “safe route” is the wrong action to take? 

You’re always looking for someone to blame. When things aren’t going as well as you’d like, is your first impulse to explain how others in the organization contributed to the problem? Fear of being blamed for poor results can be debilitating. You waste time avoiding blame, rather than putting your energy into taking needed action. 

You sugarcoat the truth or tell lies of omission. This often happens when we are afraid  to deliver bad news. Perhaps you don’t tell your subordinate that she needs to improve performance or you don’t share with your boss bad news you received from a customer. Too often we are afraid of what people will think and do if we tell the truth, so we gloss over the truth or say nothing at all.

You don’t trust others to do their part. A department manager at a large manufacturing company worked long hours, yet accomplished far less than he could have. Why? Because he was afraid to delegate to his team and didn’t trust his peers enough to ask them to contribute to his most important projects. If you aren’t moving fast as a team, the competition will pass you by.

If you’ve spotted these red flags in your own behavior, fear is most likely dampening your effectiveness. When you were first learning to ride a bike, the bike was tippy and unstable but once you got moving, the motion of the bike created stability. You overcame the fear and got to a safer place. Biking became fun. In this way, overcoming your fears at work creates greater safety, stability and fulfillment for you and the others you work with. 

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Five “Fear Busters” 

1. If you feel hesitant to speak up about a new idea, paint a clear vision, work with others to identify and address the obstacles and get going. (Fear thrives on vagueness, while clarity fosters courage.) Tim, the production manager at a printing company, thought for years about a new way to manage customer orders. He believed the new process could help the company complete production runs far faster than its competitors. He kept his idea to himself, however, because he feared that if his idea were implemented, he would be the one blamed if the new process failed to work. 

One day, at the urging of a coworker, he sketched a schematic of the new order management process and wrote a few paragraphs about how the customer would input orders, how the production crew would set up and run the orders and how the delivery team would do their part. 

With this newfound clarity, he went to talk with his peers in other parts of the organization. Customers were delighted with the shorter turnaround time on orders, and company revenues surged.

2. Test the waters before jumping in full-force. The unknown is scary. When you are operating in unfamiliar territory, you don’t know what dangers may be lurking. The key is to stick one foot in, then the other, before committing 100 percent.

Michelle, a salesperson, was assigned to penetrate an industry segment—hospitality—that she knew very little about. She made a list of eight low-risk ways to learn more about how to sell in the industry. These included talking to her neighbor who had once worked for Marriott, calling on a small local hotel chain and attending a hospitality industry conference. 

Within a few weeks, the gaps in her knowledge had been filled, and she approached hospitality customers with confidence. The customers appreciated her fresh point of view and curiosity, and she quickly grew sales.

3. Help others feel safe. When I was nine years old at summer camp, a group of girls and I set out to walk through the dark from our tent to the campfire, after dinner. The night sounds spooked us, and each girl’s fears built upon the others’. By the time we reached the fire ring where our leaders were, we were shaking in our sneakers. Here’s the moral: Fear breeds fear and, in the same way, calming others also calms you.

When you work to calm the fears of your coworkers, you will feel more confident yourself. Reward courage and honesty in all those you deal with and reassure your teammates that they can speak the truth to you. When you help others overcome their fear, they will reciprocate, and you’ll all be stronger and more fearless together. 

4. Share bad news and potential solutions promptly. Jennifer, head of the development team at a mid-sized software company, saw that her team was going to miss a key product release deadline. She knew that the sales team would be furious, as missing the deadline would put several key customer accounts at risk of defecting. However, she knew the sooner she informed her peers, the sooner they could start mitigating the damage. Sharing the bad news immediately helped Jennifer build trust with her peers.

Problems tend to get worse, not better, when you delay action. Once you’ve shared the news, you can kick into ‘action mode’ and focus on righting the ship.

5. Take responsibility immediately when things go wrong (even if it isn’t really your fault). Fear can arise from a feeling of helplessness. When you take full responsibility for what you can control, you don’t have to worry that someone else might drop the ball (and that, subsequently, you will be blamed). 

Brian, the customer service manager at a supplier, makes a habit of accepting responsibility for anything that prevents an order from arriving on time and in good shape—even factors he can’t control, like shipment delays due to weather. He errs on the side of accepting blame, then focuses on solving the customer’s problem. 

Amanda Setili, author of Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets, is president of strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates. An internationally acclaimed expert on strategic agility®, she gives her clients—including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, The Home Depot, and Walmart advice on how to respond quickly and intelligently to a changing marketplace. A past employee of McKinsey & Company and Kimberly-Clark, Setili served as an executive with successful disruptive technology startups in the U.S. and Malaysia. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Harvard Business School and has taught as an adjunct professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School. Her first book was The Agility Advantage: How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World.

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