We don’t talk about being afraid at work. We’re adults, so it’s not an issue for us. Except when it is.
I once asked a group of 10 chief executives if they thought they’d ever fired anyone too soon. Not one person said yes, but several described occasions where, in retrospect, they’d left it far too long, although at the time they’d come up with plenty of reasons to wait it out.
We are all far better at rationalising emotional decisions than we are at making rational ones, and anxiety is a powerful emotional driver. That’s why the majority of us are brilliant at justifying our avoidance of those things that we’re too scared to do. I’ll give you two very recent examples.
In a planning workshop with an executive team, there was a difference of opinion on how a situation should be resolved. Two key players saw it very differently, but after some discussion an approach was agreed by all. Two weeks later, one of them changed the decision without consultation.
In a sales workshop, I asked the attendees to review their progress since the previous session. Several of them had made big strides, but a couple had found it really difficult. The issues, they explained, had been pre-existing commitments, the need to do more research, uncertainty around price. All of these were justifiable reasons, but they weren’t the real reason.
Fear of conflict, fear of rejection, fear of failure and losing face, fear of change and the unknown, fear of upsetting the people we care about: all of these are very real, and their effect can be as corrosive as it is subconscious. If you don’t recognise any of these in yourself, you’re either a rare individual or you’re too afraid to see it.
So how do we counter this pervasive predisposition to avoid things that make us uncomfortable, that make us anxious, that make us afraid?
Here are four steps you can take:
Step one: recognise fear as a factor. If you’re finding plenty of good reasons to explain a course of action that you know isn’t ideal, stop. Challenge yourself to at least consider what you would ideally do.
Step two: feel afraid, but still go for it. If you know it’s the right thing to do, but you’re slipping into "avoidance strategies", make the commitment to yourself that, at some point, you will take the plunge.
Step three: make yourself accountable. Tell someone you trust about the decision you’ve made and commit to a timeframe with them. It doesn’t need to be anyone involved in the situation, it just needs to be someone who will ask you about it later.
Step four: plan your reward. You’re about to do something uncomfortable, something you’d rather avoid, and you’re going to do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. And that’s the critical bit: the reward is for doing the right thing, not for the outcome, whatever it is.
No matter how smart we think we are, through almost every part of our lives it's our emotions that drive our behaviour and our reasoning that helps us to justify and explain it afterwards. Whenever you find yourself rationalising an uncomfortable decision, ask yourself these two simple questions: "What am I afraid of?" and "Is fear the best basis upon which to make this decision?"
Martyn Drake is the founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting