One of the fundamental principles I often find myself compelled to discuss with coaching clients, or touch on during a training session, is that fear is not necessarily a bad thing. In saying that, the first reaction I normally receive is a puzzled look. Many of us have been taught from childhood that we should be brave, and that bravery is about becoming fearless. And so, fear received a bad rap, and we see fear as something to be afraid of – because its presence indicates that you are a coward or weak. This can often lead to us focusing more on suppressing the fear than the actual thing or situation that elicits the fear response in us.
Whether we like it or not, we were not designed to be fearless. Fear is an emotional response connected to a basic need we all have – to feel safe. In the evolution of the human brain, this had been encoded for a very good reason. Our fear response is designed to trigger an action from us. If it’s a lion, we run. If we were to convince ourselves that we should not show fear and stand our ground, the stand we take is probably going to be immaterial to a starving lion. His fear that you may also be a threat, would most certainly be overridden by his fear of starving to death. Human beings are in any event rather defenceless without our modern weapons.
Similarly, if we stand too close to the ledge of a high building, we step back. The inherent fear alerts our conscious mind that we need to do something. Our action is our attempt to get us to a place of safety. Sometimes our recognition of a situation, that triggers an action to get us to safety, can be so subtle that our attempt to get to safety is so automatic that we don’t even think about it. For example, while walking down a steep set of stairs we may automatically reach out to hold onto the rail, without consciously thinking that it is a reaction to a fear trigger.
There are many things that could threaten our safety. It is however much easier for us to recognise what makes us feel unsafe when the object of our fear is tangible or something we can see. For example, when we see a hissing cobra, that would trigger the fear response. In the presence of that cobra, we would inevitably not feel safe. Or when we stand at the end of a ledge of a very high building, our fear of heights kicks in because we know that falling is not safe. We are inherently wired to want to survive.
It does become trickier when we navigate the corporate jungle. There are of course times when the danger is clear, and we are conscious of the fear and its trigger. For example, in a situation when someone threatens that you will be fired if you do not do something they want you to do. Being fired would translate into you losing the source through which you fund your livelihood, and it may potentially make it difficult to find another job, as people tend to be suspicious of those who have been fired. Although being fired may in some cases be an injustice, we are indoctrinated to think that people only get fired because they have done something wrong. Fearing the consequences of being fired would be a natural response.
In many cases, however, the danger is not all that clear. For example, you may find yourself in a position where an individual presents a friendly face to you, while that person is working on your demise in the background. When they mask their true intentions, it may become a lot more difficult to detect when you are no longer safe. It can become even more complex when that person has rationalised to themselves that their actions are in the interest of the greater good and that they are doing what they are doing because they are a ‘nice’ person. Part of the reason why we miss the cues may be in our socialisation and our ability to rationalise and override what our instincts may be telling us (but that is a long conversation for another day). The key issue is that, in suppressing our ability to detect the early signs that there is something to be afraid of, we can put ourselves in harm’s way. If we recognise that something is off, that is the trigger that we need to take action to remove ourselves from harm’s way, or to work toward minimising the inevitable negative impact.
We could of course have conflicting triggers of fear that can severely complicate matters for us. Let me go back to the example of the person who threatens to fire you. That individual may be very influential and has a reputation of being one of the best in their field. You may have a need to be accepted by that individual as one of the “in-crowd”. The person may provide access to power. Dealing with your fear of being fired and your fear of not being accepted by that individual may require conflicting actions. What would be the correct action to take to bring you to a point of being safe? Allow me to add another layer of complexity. What happens if doing what the individual wants you to do would produce negative consequences, not only for yourself, but also for others? How does the fear of the potential negative consequences that may unfold in the future affect your decision about what action to take in order for you to feel safe? Without realising it, we are often in situations where it is in actual fact our fear response that informs our actions and decisions.
The flip side is when we are very conscious of our fear, but we do not, or cannot, take appropriate action. The fear persists and turns from being the friend that warns us that our safety is at risk to the enemy that cripples us. The more time we spend paralysed by fear or lashing out irresponsibly, the deeper we can spiral into a never-ending poisonous cycle. When our fear is uncontrolled or in overdrive, we are prone to making irrational decisions or not taking the necessary steps to get out to a place of safety. In that case, fear becomes our enemy. The ideal is for us to think rationally about what is at play and then to use our problem-solving abilities to find appropriate means of action to get us to safety.
Another way that fear can become our enemy is when it extends to prejudice or other destructive behaviours. For example, when we perceive someone as an “other” we can fear them and that can lead to inappropriate responses to that person’s presence. We may not even be aware of what is driving the fear. This was illustrated by a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University which revealed that when European American males were shown faces of people of colour, the first area of the brain to respond was the amygdala, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. When these same men were shown Caucasian faces they were not familiar with, it was however the part of the brain that deals with recognition of faces that was first engaged.
As with everything else when it comes to us humans, awareness is the key to us self-correcting. Whether we need to become more open to embracing fear as a great survival tool, or deal with it when we have an unhealthy relationship with fear, we need to be aware of where we are. This is especially true for those of us who are in leadership positions. How do we lead others courageously if we do not know what our relationship with fear is, what our trigger points are, and how to self-correct? Asking: “what do I fear” can be one of the most difficult questions we ask ourselves, but also liberating. It is of course easier said than done. Awareness is the first step. Some of us may need a sounding board, like a coach, to help us ask questions like: “In this situation, what am I really afraid of?; “What have my instincts picked up that I have rationalised away?”; “Is my relationship with fear healthy or unhealthy?”