Managing Fear

“We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

-Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States

FDR spoke to something powerful in his first inaugural address. He didn’t know the tragedy and danger that awaited him and our country in the years to come, but he was trying to point the way forward from the darkness of the Great Depression. His point was to not let fear paralyze us from the tasks at hand. Isolating and understanding our fear, not preventing or avoiding it, but harnessing it, using it to propel ourselves to new heights instead of being controlled by it.

Today, fear still rules the world. You don’t have to look very hard to see 2016 as a year where a lot of people decided to start fearing more than just fear itself. Big questions like, who is going to keep us safe, who is going to make us prosperous, and so on, spring directly from our fears. Oftentimes, the obsession becomes preventing the negative instead of achieving the positive. Then, of course, an election year, means a change of leadership. When there’s big change, especially in leadership, fear follows.

Many business leaders manage fear on a daily basis. Each department and employee has their issues and goals and often their biggest obstacle is fear. Let’s take a salesperson, managing their fear can mean several different things. Some sales executives fears are universal such as prospecting, cold calling, asking for the order, following up on why the delay, the reason why we didn’t get your business, the supposedly impossible quota, etc. Ultimately, these boil down to the fear of rejection and failure, which is probably the most common fear for everyone from young kids in the lunchroom to major players in the boardroom. But just like when we were kids, we all have to eat.

Two Sides of Fear

Fear is a complex emotion. It can be positive or negative force in our lives. In certain situations, fear can be paralyzing and destructive. When people feel threatened, their response will be fight or flight. In your company, if you push people too far, they might push back or simply walk away from the difficult and scary situation. Often, employees are paralyzed by fear and consequently, don’t take risks or decisive actions. If fear dominates you, then there is no way forward and the results are detrimental to your business. Again, take the salesperson, they can’t afford fear to keep them from picking up the phone.

On the flip side, fear can also be motivating, and can have the opposite effect in people. Fear becomes the driver and elicits competitiveness. It can make people tap into reserves of determination, imagination and innovation that they didn’t known they possessed. Did you ever notice that when the deadline is looming, we start hustling and often we become creative? “The pressure is on and I have to kick some butt to hit my monthly goals.” It’s not that I’m advocating that things should be left to the last minute, it’s just that for some, the real thinking and doing comes in the 11th hour.

Managing and understanding fear goes back to man living in caves where we can start to understand the history of fear in our very evolution. When you often think of man taking great strides, we don’t always associate those innovations as fear based. Back in the caves, our human ancestors were afraid of freezing to death, so they built shelters and discovered fire to protect them from the elements. In nature, mankind included, adaptability is what lets the predator keep hunting and the prey keep escaping and surviving. Fear can ignite imagination. It is not always a bad thing to be driven by fear.

Great Leaders Understand Fear

Within the same inaugural address as the famous fear quote, Roosevelt proposes the solution or counterweight to fear: leadership. “In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” Notice that he identifies the critical additional aspect to overcoming fear, which is the “understanding and support” of the people being lead. Leaders provide leadership, but it only works if the team “buys in,” and “buy in” comes from trust.

The Fearless Leader

There is the famous idea of the “Fearless Leader,” the person who through their personal boldness inspires the people to follow them to victory. However, the most effective leaders are not fearless. Quite the opposite, actually. Leaders often have sleepless nights – What keeps these people up at night? Failure. The future. Leaders look at themselves and say, “Am I good enough to lead these people? Am I going to be successful?” When a leader looks around and sees companies in different industries from Ringling Bros. Circus to Sears either teetering on the edge or outright going out of business, they might wonder if they’re next.

A great leader has understanding of their employees, but that understanding comes in part from an introspective view and acknowledging their own fear. They put it in context and understand the consequences. It doesn’t do good to pretend that a big decision isn’t a big decision, but a leader also can’t let fear paralyze them, it has to motivate them. When people are counting on you, or looking to you for guidance, you can’t shrink from that moment. That’s why not everyone is cut out for leadership. Not everyone can understand their fear, and ultimately channel this strong emotion.

Harnessing our Fears

People don’t like failure, especially leaders. They don’t like rejection, either. They want to belong and most importantly seek praise. Therefore, it stands to reason that we often have to push and challenge ourselves and team to get out of the comfort zone. Bottom-line, we worked at discovering fire, because if we had waited for lightning to strike…

People often amplify their fears. It’s important to help them figure out what they’re actually afraid of. Is it failure? Is it being rejected? As a leader, you need your employees to trust you to put them in situations where they can succeed. Like an army going into battle, harnessing fear into motivation can unite people and create or achieve something bigger than the individual.

Managing fear comes down to listening: to your team, to your client, and ultimately to some combination of your brain and your gut. How you interpret the fears of those around you will help you figure out the right way forward. Listen closely and you’ll discover that your client fears the costs vs. the gains or if an employee’s fear of making a mistake is inhibiting their ability to do their job. If you stay aware and forthcoming, then you open up to a whole new set of solutions.

We live in a time of change and our fears have bubbled to the surface, but if we look at fear head on, perhaps we can invent, create and inspire.

Erika Weinstein is CEO and founder of eTeam Executive Search. global headhunters who are passionate about building business with the right people.

On Twitter? Follow Erika Weinstein at @eTeamsearch