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Is fear holding you back?
"I've got to deliver some hard messages to my direct report, and it's been keeping me awake at night." "I'm so worried that my boss is unhappy with my work that I'm down to four hours of sleep." "One of my peers is so competitive and manipulative that I'm certain our boss is hanging on his every word." "The CEO has talked to me about a significant promotion. I don't know if I should take the new job because I'm not sure I have what it takes."
All common statements from high performing executives. All of them an expression of fear.
Fear is incredibly useful to human beings. It signals that danger is imminent and we should get ready to fight or flee. We experience it in our bodies: our guts churn, our hearts race, our muscles tense, our adrenaline kicks in and our brains craft protective strategies with lightning speed. Excellent. But what if we have exaggerated the potential harm? What if we have told ourselves a story that may not be grounded in facts? What if this thing we call fear is something else? What if our fear is nothing more than anxiety and self-doubt run amok?
When we are lying awake at night ruminating about a tough conversation, rehearsing it endlessly in our minds, we are sending a message to our whole being. "I'm nervous. I might screw this up. Someone's career is on the line. I don't want to hurt someone. There are some perfect words (if only I could find them!) I can use to make the situation less awful." We toss and turn and get out of bed and decide we'll wait and see if this person improves without having to intervene. Our physical homeostasis returns to normal once we have removed the object of our anxiety and life goes on. Phew!
But this is wrong on so many levels.
The staff person won't perform better without direct feedback. Nothing will change.
Your reputation as a leader will suffer. Everyone knows this person isn't living up to expectations and it is your job to take care of this. When you don't do that, people see you as weak/not courageous/not doing your job/ineffective.
Your boss won't be pleased either. See above.
You will have let your fears and anxieties rule your actions so the criticism you receive will be warranted.
Every day there are encounters that will bump up against your fears. It is your personal responsibility to stare those down and move past your paralysis to take the actions the organization needs you to take.
Here are some things to think about.
Most fears are simply our insecurities. When your brain and body go into overdrive in hopes of running screaming from the room, take a deep breath or two and start a different train of thought. Ask yourself, am I scared or just nervous? How do I think I might mess this up? Can I remember any past experiences that provide insight into why I've made such a big deal out of this? What happened to lock me up so much? How can I bring this into perspective? What self-doubt do I need to examine?
Maybe now is the time to act differently. In previous roles you might have been given a pass but once you are a senior leader you need to step up. Avoidance is not a long-term strategy. If you are ready to make some changes, reach out for help. A trusted mentor or confidante or a coach can be very helpful.
You need to get out of your own way. You are your worst enemy when it comes to these self-doubts. It is probable that people around you have great confidence in you but part of you isn't buying that. Absorb the kudos and let that inform your self-talk. You will still need to do #1 and #2 above but it would help if you let the good stuff in to counter-balance your negativity.
The longer you let your fears and anxieties win, the shorter your ascent. Executives are removed from companies because they are (pick one) conflict/risk averse or unable to address tough decisions or performance issues or immobilized by insecurities. This type of behavior harms the company performance and the morale, and few boards put up with this indefinitely.
So far so good. But what about when the stakes are much higher and there is some legitimate reason to be truly fearful? What about when you need to give the CEO some critical feedback because it is part of your job (as the legal counsel or head of Human Resources or the CFO) to rein in some poor behavior before it hurts the company? Here's what the fear sounds like in our heads. "This could be a career limiting move. Why isn't the board doing this? Why does it have to be me? Why aren't my colleagues doing this? Maybe an outside consultant should deliver the message." Basically, we say to ourselves "anyone but me". It takes a mix of courage, tact, and selflessness to have this conversation. It must be framed in your mind and in your words as looking out for the best interests of the organization. It must not be an indictment. It must be behaviorally specific, and solutions focused. It must be direct, brief, and neutrally worded. It must be followed up some days later with another brief conversation to explore what the CEO is thinking now that s/he has absorbed the information and to offer your support. It is a daunting assignment and it could go very wrong for you. Frequently, CEOs get initially very defensive and angry at the messenger only to be reasonable and grateful after some time to mull it over. Done well it can be a career enhancing move.
Many moments at work will elicit fear, anxiety and self-doubt. And some of those moments are scary. But most of them are about our own insecurities and desires to avoid conflict or discomfort. It's hard to imagine effective leadership without courage, a backbone, and the slaying of your dragons.
So, look in the mirror and have a serious talk.