Music to read to:
It is dark and gloomy outside and I feel constantly tired. In times like these, I am continually looking for sources of inspiration. And today, I would like to share with you three stories about overcoming fear. Two of them are recent, one not so much, but I reach out to all of them when I am scared and unsure how to go on.
Overcoming the Fear of Failure
About six months ago, the supervisor of one of my teams left. Since all my other managers were very busy, I stepped in to oversee the team operationally. I was rather rusty and there were many challenges in the team that we needed to conquer and I was a bit overwhelmed. But more about that another one.
Lisa was a relatively new team member. She was the quiet one in team meetings, slow in adapting to changes and somewhat lacking confidence in her abilities. Due to the changes in the team, I really needed her to step up and expand the scope of her activities. I started to progressively give her new tasks so as not to overwhelm her. However, she kept showing silent or sometimes not so silent resistance to any new activity type, and I was becoming increasingly frustrated.
After one particularly aggravating incident when she called in sick 30 min after I gave her a new task, I knew we could no longer continue this way. I was planning to have a very tough talk with her and tell her off.
Fortunately, just then, the Harvard Business Review’s “Why leading with compassion is a better managerial tactic than toughness” article came to me in one of a multitude of serendipitous moments that are sprinkled through my life. It reminded me of something that I already knew well but had for a moment, forgotten in my anger – compassion in leadership promotes employee trust and loyalty.
With my regained balance, I called her and we started talking. It was still a difficult conversation centered around two areas – what are the reasons for her resistance and what she wants to achieve in our team. Lisa shared that she was a perfectionist and had a strong fear of not completing her tasks as per my expectations and the training she received for her new activities was not sufficient to make her feel confident. She also complained that her current workload does not allow her to take on anything new (which was partially true). She had big ambitions for professional growth, but she did not seem to make the connection that to achieve them, she would need to keep expanding her responsibilities and learning new things. I directed the conversation there and clearly told her that she could not expect growth within my team unless she steps up. It was a stern message to deliver, and I am sure – a difficult one to hear.
After the conversation, I arranged additional training for her and redistributed some of her work, but honestly, I was not sure she would make it. She had to overcome a deeply instilled fear of failure, and I could not predict whether she would manage.
Time passed, their new supervisor joined and I stepped back. I could not observe Lisa’s progress very closely anymore, but I noticed that she is taking on more and more responsibilities. I was hesitant to broach the subject with her because I was afraid I would jinx her headway.
Until a couple of weeks ago, when we had our regular skip-level meeting and she started the conversation with, “Marta, I have been waiting for this conversation. I wanted to tell you that I am not afraid of new things anymore. I realized that the only way you develop is by learning new things. And now when there is a new task, I just go, “bring it on.””
Let me tell you – I did not stop smiling for three days after that. Fear of failure is one of the most crippling emotions one can experience. And I should know – I have been battling it all my life. But Lisa had managed to shift her focus to her desire for success instead and to keep moving forward. I see a bright future for her in our team.
Overcoming the Fear of Vulnerability
Vulnerability is risky on many levels. And it does not help that as managers, we are often taught that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and can damage our professional reputation. Melinda was brought up as a leader in precisely that way. She thought she should focus all work interactions entirely on operational tasks, issues and resolutions. While she gladly accepts others’ vulnerability and is very attuned to their emotions, sharing her own goes against her professional image of herself.
This approach has brought her excellent results and much success. Still, over time she started realizing that she is not getting everything she needed from her relationships with her manager, her team and her colleagues. She often felt misunderstood and increasingly unhappy.
Progressively, despite her conditioning to always seem in control and never talk about her own emotions and needs, she started realizing that she would never achieve full job satisfaction unless she opened up. And since this required a great leap of courage, she did it in one big move – in the course of one week, she had meetings with her manager, her team and some of her stakeholders. During those meetings, she, for the first time, managed to express her own feelings and intimate thoughts about her work relationships and her job. She talked about the issues she struggled with and showed up as a human being and not just a manager and professional.
Since this is not a fairy tale, I cannot lie that everything magically changed after those meetings and now all those relationships are perfect and completely satisfactory for her. But she did open doors for conversations that would never be possible before, and that could eventually lead her to a place of comfort and trust.
Overcoming Fear. Period.
The third story is about my eight-year-old son.
Now, I am often annoyed at people who quote their children and find some profound and deep meaning in everything the kid does or says. But my son is special and very wise (ask anyone who knows him).
Three years ago, he and his friends encountered an aggressive dog and overnight, he was utterly terrified of anything with a tail. He would cross the street if he would see even a puppy approaching and if a dog got near him, he would scream and jump a mile high.
This went on for a few months and then Benton appeared. Benton was a small white dog with a brown tail and was my son’s first imaginary friend (he read this and said that Benton was brown with a white rump, but that is not how I remember it). Later he had others too – a cat, a horse, a tiger, an invisible boy. At some point, they went up to eight and it was pretty crowded at home. But Benton was the first one and stayed with us the longest. My son was able to explain what the dog was currently doing at any given moment, and we talked about him often. We even wrote one and a half books about him (I got lazy after that).
Over time, when we met a dog, after the initial scream, he would look at it and start finding similarities with Benton and show more and more interest in dogs. Two years after Benton came into our lives, my son was able to spend time with dogs and even play with them occasionally. He is still not their biggest fan (we are cat people in our house), but he feels quite comfortable with our friends’ very real dog who lives in our shared yard.
There is a technique widely used in cognitive therapy called desensitization. It involves controlled exposure to anxiety or fear-inducing stimulus, starting with low intensity and increasing it gradually. I had tried to do that with real dogs, but apparently, no matter how slowly I thought I was moving, it was still too much for him. So he decided to start his desensitization himself with something he can bear – an imaginary dog.
See, I told you he was wise.