The Unspoken Side of Fear

Right now, what’s the one fear lingering in your mind? What’s the fear that was there with you as you arrived at work today? What’s the fear that doesn’t disappear as you're trying to unwind from your work day?

Maybe it’s the fear of a product not launching. It might be the fear that your relationship with your boss is failing. It could even be as simple as not hitting your sales goal for the month. Common fears, sure, but they’re also real. There are thousands of blog posts, magazine articles and books to counter these types of fear in our work environment. But what about the side of fear that goes unspoken?

We are less likely to discuss this side of fear because it lands a little deeper in our hearts. These are the fears that have twisted our value. These are the fears that have us questioning our worth. It’s rare that a work culture is a safe enough environment to openly discuss our value. We want to take pride in what we do and the quality of our work, which is why the following fears can wreak havoc on our work culture as well as our personal life.  So let’s take a deeper look and see if you relate to or are being led by fears people don’t openly talk about.

  1. The fight for survival - Have you ever had a season in which you are fearful for your job?  How about a season in which you feel like a personal relationship is nearing the end? These are seasons of survival. We humans are hard-wired to survive. Wired to run from the sabertooth tiger, fleeing is a biological reaction. Today’s leaders face a sabertooth tiger of a different variety. We might be leading on the outside, but inside we’re just fighting to survive. This fear can control our subconscious and we lose sight of the way we treat people. Or worse, we place our need for survival on the performance of those we lead. If we’re not paying attention, our fight for survival can create even more damage.

  2. Avoiding extremes - Have you ever heard anyone say, “Let’s make sure we stay under the radar”? Fear will tell us to avoid falling below average. Fear will also tell us to not do anything too significant.  The safest place we can be is where everyone else is, to perform like everyone else is, and to think like everyone else does. But to lead other people out of our own fear to remain average will have consequences.  Most of all, the desire for average is a killer to a business or organization creating a pipeline of talent. People who know they are capable of great things don’t want to work for someone who is too fearful to let them risk trying new things.  

  3. Follow the track of proven success - Fear convinces leaders the direction of success runs down a single track. A common refrain among leaders driven by this fear is, “We’ve always done it this way.” And this type of leadership squelches a work culture that values innovation. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble so eloquently say in their book Reverse Innovation,

Executives are naturally motivated to repeat actions that they believe have produced success. If success continues, at some point the organization as a whole crosses a line: instead of consciously repeating those actions, it unconsciously accepts them as indisputably correct. This certitude becomes embedded not only in managers’ minds, but also in the relationships, planning processes, performance evaluation systems, organizational structures, human-resources policies, and communication patterns that make the organization tick.

4. Missing the personal bar - Sometimes the most crippling fear is the fear of not meeting our own expectation for success. Some organizational leaders are unable to separate the organization's success from their own value. Stephen Covey, in his classic The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, calls us to begin with the end in mind. Picture your retirement party and imagine what people would say about you. Do you picture people discussing how quickly you responded to voicemails? Do you think people will talk about your leadership through the merger or transition? Our measurement of success moves from specific moments of success to legacy. When we focus on our legacy, our own success takes a back seat to how we treat people.

So if we’re facing one of these fears, what can we do? First, acknowledge it and name the fear. Sometimes, simply naming the fear decreases its power. This might be unusual for some, but try praying about it. We recommend writing these prayers down. We get it: leaders are expected to have their stuff together. But writing prayers on paper creates a safe place to express your needs to God without your mind being swallowed by the fear. Lastly, we recommend bringing these fears to a trusted friend or a professional counselor, someone outside of your professional circle who can help process what’s real and what’s not. It’s not uncommon for a leader to charge past a fear and attack the symptom or result, instead of dealing with the actual fear making it bigger and bigger in their mind. Occasionally, a leader needs someone to remind them the original size of fear and what to do about it.  

A wholehearted leader is a force to be reckoned with. And wholehearted leaders allow these unspoken sides of fear to be motivational, not detrimental.