Fear adversely impacts almost every leader’s leadership approach and leaders must conquer their fears to become the best leader they can be. Everyone is afraid of something, even the executive who seems to have it all figured out! The secret to leading successfully, having a prosperous career, finding the right job, and living a fulfilling life is to stop letting fear get in the way of doing what you need or want to do. In our experience coaching leaders and professionals in ways to overcome fear, the most common fear in the workplace is the dread of failure.
“Leadership involves the heavy burden of responsibility, and the fear of getting it wrong can paralyze a leader.” — John C. Maxwell
In addition to fear of failure, our coaches have helped clients dissipate the following fears that are detrimental to a leader’s success, including:
• Being viewed as an imposter
• Hurting people’s feelings
• Being judged
• Being seen as a sellout
• Emotional pain
• Being vulnerable
• Being disliked
• The unknown
How Does Fear Hinder Effective Leadership?
If not managed, fear can cause leaders to respond with their “fight or flight” instincts and either avoid situations, hide from situations, avoid communicating, lash out to protect themselves, and/or procrastinate. Not only does fear impact a leader’s behaviors, but it also can block an executive from doing tasks and projects that are their responsibility. In addition, it can also prevent them from being assertive.
Fear can prevent a leader from doing a myriad of things, including:
- Advocating for employee resource needs
- Negotiating deadlines and requirements
- Seeking pay increases for employees
- Giving employees recognition and perks
- Requesting needed staff
- Communicating expectations to employees
- Delegating tasks and projects
- Assigning projects to employees they find intimidating
- Holding employees accountable
- Having performance conversations with employees
- Giving constructive feedback
- Engaging in the progressive discipline process
- Firing an employee
- Communicating with their team transparently
- Negotiating effectively with peers and/or customers
- Intervening in bad employee behavior, such as ridiculing, attacking, and bullying others (I’ve even seen CEOs struggle with this)
- Standing up for staff when customers are wrong
- Communicating departmental needs and being assertive with other managers, other departments, and/or their boss to resolve issues
- Managing conflict, especially between their team members
- Involving team members in decisions and process improvements
- Holding meetings
- Doing presentations
As you can see, fear and anxiety can get in the way of doing many things that are at the core of leadership. Interestingly, many leadership shortcomings can be caused by more than one of the fears we’ve listed above. For example, avoiding performance conversations could be caused by a fear of:
- Being disliked
- Being seen as a sellout
- Hurting an employee’s feelings
- Being impolite
Are any of these fears holding you back? Maybe two or three of them? If so, you can apply some of the strategies we’ve given below to eliminate and/or manage your fear. Even better, engage with one of our coaches to learn ways for leaders to overcome fear so that you can become the best leader you can be and continue to move up the corporate ladder.
Fear may be intractable because leaders have no idea how to overcome their fears. But even more commonly, leaders aren’t even aware that dread is what’s driving them to procrastinate or avoid doing what needs to be done.
“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” — Nelson Mandela
Leadership Coaching and Executive Coaching are valuable tools for overcoming fears and developing the skills needed to become an effective leader. Here are eight strategies our coaches use to help leaders to overcome fear:
1. Practice Facing Your Fear
When you practice facing fear, it gets easier. In fact, the more you practice, the easier it gets. I can attest to this as I was afraid of a lot of things when I started my career and now I do what I consider to be courageous things every day. One of the strategies I used to conquer my own anxieties was practicing facing my fears intentionally.
Does it work? In the past I had trouble speaking in small meetings with my peers and now I lead large meetings (even on Zoom) with top level leaders. I used to avoid conflict at all costs and later I mediated conflict for dysfunctional teams. I used to get anxious when I had to do a business call and now I comfortably do sales calls (one of the hardest types of calls a leader has to make) with CEOs all the time.
Here are a few tips on applying this strategy:
• You may want to choose lesser fears to start with and work your way up to the more challenging ones.
• You can practice in your personal life and then apply what you learn to your work.
• Because you are “practicing,” expect and embrace mistakes and experiment until you find the right approach for you.
2. Use Your Senses to Focus Outside Yourself
To shift your focus away from your fear, take a moment to experience each of your five senses. Touch a piece of clothing and name the texture. See the colors in the room around you. Smell the coffee brewing in the break room. Do the same for taste and hearing. Each step in this process will take you further away from your fear.
3. Focus on the Other People in the Situation
Everyone in a situation has an agenda and feelings. Try to understand what they hope to get out of the situation, listen to them deeply, and ask questions to deepen your understanding. Even if someone has a stoic expression, consider what they may be feeling inside (maybe they have fears, too). Doing so will distract you from thinking about your own fears and make you more successful in your interactions with the people involved.
4. Change the “Story” You Tell Yourself About the Fear
I used to change the story of my fear of public speaking by telling myself, as I prepared to step in front of the audience, that I was “excited,” not “afraid.” That really helped me and it was actually true — I was excited to spend time with the audience, see their reactions, witness their learning, and learn from them.
What are the stories you tell yourself? “I’m not good enough”? “Others always reject me”? “That person won’t listen to me, so why try”? Identify the negative stories that hold you back and replace them with new, positive stories.
5. Overcome Your Limiting Beliefs
Look at the thought or belief that you tie to the fear and replace it. For example, if you are anxious about assigning work to others, the thought may be:
• People hate people who give them work to do.
• They’ll think I’m too lazy to do it myself.
• If I assign this to one of my team members, they will fail, and, therefore, I’ll fail.
6. Focus on the Reward You’ll Get When You Overcome the Fear
A classic example is asking for a raise. Most people are fearful of walking into their supervisor’s office and making that ask. Don’t think about the ask – think instead about the vacation you can afford once you get the raise. Picture yourself poolside at a resort. When you see that the reward is worth the risk of facing your fear, the fear will diminish greatly.
7. Force Yourself To Do the Task, Or As Nike Says: “Just Do It!”
This is the knuckle-down-and-charge-ahead tactic. We often have “anticipation” fear, making us reluctant even to start something. Try just diving in. Tell yourself that the only way out is to go through. You may find that the fear you anticipated vanishes and the way ahead becomes clear.
8. Remember That Fear Can Be Fun!
There are many examples of things we do for entertainment that are fun because they cause fear, like watching “Nightmare on Elm Street,” riding Space Mountain, singing Karaoke, or downhill skiing. If you can transfer that sense of fun to a fear at work, it’s much easier to face it.
“Don’t be afraid to be afraid.” — Maurice Chevalier
Monsieur Chevalier was onto something there, and the French entertainment icon was known for confidence, sophistication, and a dash of mischief. Don’t get down on yourself for being afraid. Instead, recognize your fears and use these insights to manage them. Lead your team, lead your organization, lead your career and life . . . and lead them all right past those fears.