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A Short Exercise in Harnessing Fear in the Work Place

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” - Nelson Mandela

When you talk to me about overcoming fears I think of hiking in the Grand Canyon a few years ago. Unintentionally, I forgot to tell my wife that part of the hike was climbing 200 feet down the side of a mountain - oops! I could tell by the look on her face she was filled with fear. 20 minutes later, she was down and happy and her fear helped. Being afraid didn’t mean she refused to continue the hike. It meant she took extra time, was extra careful, double checked her footing and because of this, she made it safely to the bottom and we carried on further than I thought we could.

Fear takes a hold of us in various ways throughout our lives. It is one of the biggest motivating factors in how we conduct ourselves, the choices we make and the things we pursue. Yet we tend to run from it rather than embrace it. If you take a little time to really think about some of your fears, you can find ways to harness them, control them and let them push you to higher levels.

I was recently asked to do just that- try to figure out a fear that motivated me throughout the day- and create a plan to harness it. It took me a while…I’m not really scared at work. I have a safe occupation, in a safe area, I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t until about mid-day (in the middle of Googling every statistic I was being presented in a prep for a pitch) that I figured it out: I fear being wrong. And it is so obvious.

I’m notorious for stopping people mid-sentence so I can fact check their statements, I research my papers beyond what anyone would consider necessary and I spend way too much time re-reading my sources to make sure I don’t incorrectly state a stat or figure.

For most, fear is a double edged sword. On the one hand, I don’t present mistakes in my work. If I state something as fact, my colleagues can rest assure it’s a fact. On the other, I’ve let this fear go so far that it can be crippling as well - a simple task, with a negligible effect on an ultimate outcome could end up taking me hours.

Imagine this - you are asked the following question for a simple internal marketing exercise: do you think most of your previous clients would refer you to a friend? Simple right? Yes. No. Maybe. Not for me. Of our past 15 clients, that means at least 8 of them would have to say yes for the statement to be true, which means before I can answer that I need to call at least 8 clients. The response that should have come right after the question takes two days to answer. Yes. That happened…but I wasn’t wrong!

Seeing this now, I am working towards harnessing that fear. I write it all out according to the following steps:

Step 1) What fear affects my day to day work?

Step 2) List several ways this helps my work

Step 3) List several ways this hurts my work.

Step 4) Create a simple plan for each fear to harness it daily


Step 1) What fear affects my day to day work? Embarrassed about being or doing anything wrong.

Step 2) List several ways this helps my work Statements are correct, improves research and reporting, provides more objectivity, supplies a large pool of data for negotiations or discussions

Step 3) List several ways this hurts my work Often takes too long to complete tasks, minute details seem more important than they actually are, can be off putting to coworkers, can lead to pessimistic or negative outlook on new ideas

Step 4) Create a simple plan for each fear to harness it daily Work on tasks which require more attention to detail and are less time sensitive (play to strengths), fact check at the end of a project instead of during, DO NOT CORRECT OTHERS UNLESS ITS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT

I don’t want to lose my motivation to be right, it helps me succeed and makes my work better. But I do want to work more efficiently. I do want to stop correcting others mid-sentence so that I feel right and I do want be ok with small acceptable errors when making them doesn’t really affect the bigger picture. When I was done with the first fear, I looked for a few more - and they were there. Going through this exercise has had an impact on my work since the moment I did it and it will do the same for you.

Spend some time monitoring you own behaviors. Figure out, what fears are motivating you? There are some big ones out there: fear of not making enough money, fear of not living up to expectations, fear of screwing up during a speech, fear of not being liked, the list goes on. No matter what that fear is though, find ways to let it motivate you. Realize it, embrace it, conquer it – but don’t lose it!

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