Everyone suffers from some form of fear, but it doesn't have to negatively impact your work. Rather, it can be harnessed to your advantage, according to experts.
Muffy Churches is a Senior Corporate Coach. She says that in a business context, fear is the protective instinct that kicks in when we perceive a threat to our sense of self-worth.
“We may sense it coming at us from an intimidating external source such as an actual event or conversation, but often it stems from our over-protective ego, which actively conjures up hypothetical, what-if scenarios that rarely eventuate," she says.
According to Churches, fear of failure, or worries that we are incompetent, vulnerable or under-achieving, are common in executive circles.
Rather than see them as unusual, we can view them as normal emotional and behavioural reactions, but learn to recognise them and respond to them in a positive way.
What are the standard responses to fear?
One of the most common responses to fear in the executive suite is a defensive, sometimes volcanic knee-jerk reaction to the perceived threat.
“On a subconscious level it's an effort to distract others from identifying the vulnerabilities we try so hard to hide," explains Churches.
Common behaviours exhibited in a senior professional experiencing fear and trying hard to deflect its detection include: blame, denial, indignation, negative thinking, impulsive decision-making and intense emotional responses.
If we recognise that these are responses to fear, we can choose to respond differently rather than simply react to any perceived threats around us.
For example suppose a CFO has produced a set of financial accounts that indicates the business won't meet its forecast. Fear would be a natural reaction.
One response might be to avoid or delay giving this information to the senior management team. But this could leave the CFO and the company in a detrimental position.
An alternative response could be to draw this information immediately to the attention of the senior management team, so action can be taken to rectify the situation. This approach might cause more emotional turbulence in the short-term, but might benefit the company and its workforce in the long-term.
Preparation helps to defuse the fear reaction
Communication expert Emma Bannister, CEO of the Presentation Studio, identifies a key catalyst for a fear reaction - lack of preparation.
“I believe fear comes from lack of preparation. You might have failed once at something – been told you aren't any good. You're embarrassed and your brain has then hardwired that negative feeling and doesn't want to do it again," she says. “For instance, about three quarters of people fear public speaking. But the fear only grows if you give into it."
According to Bannister, a common response to fear is to stick our heads in the sand and avoid thinking about what made us fearful. We also tend to put off decision-making and hope that whatever produced the fear reaction will go away.
“For instance if you have to deliver a keynote speech you might think to yourself, 'I know I have a presentation in three weeks, but I'll put it out of my mind until three days beforehand," she says. "Then you might come up with a bunch of excuses as to why you then didn't have time to prepare. You have unnecessarily made this situation worse than it should be."
“That's why it's so important to take time to prepare your message and content. So take time planning your presentation; spend about 80 per cent of your time preparing and 20 per cent of your time on rehearsals. Write out your thinking with pen and paper – not on the stage," Bannister advises.
How can we learn to use fear to our advantage?
Fear founded on reality is an important signpost directing us toward self-protection. But in many cases, says Churches, our anxieties are baseless concerns that we've simply programmed into our everyday thinking.
“With sufficient self-awareness we can identify fear quickly and leverage its powerful energy for good, transforming any fear-based negativity into something much more constructive and useful such as curiosity or empathy," Churches explains.
Bannister says she found confidence by facing her biggest fear.
“I set myself the biggest challenge I could think of, which was to create an amazing presentation and present it to my peers overseas. Once I had accomplished this then there wasn't really anything worse to fear," she says.
Addressing our own fears can lead to more effective team management. If your team sees that their CFO and leader can face fears and deal with them, they may be more inclined to do so themselves. Encouraging staff to talk about and overcome their fears can also form part of their personal development.
- Fear is a natural emotion we all experience – but we can harness its power.
- If we respond rather than react to fear we will generally exhibit a healthier response to it.