Executive Education

3 steps to stop fear impacting your business

By Alison Reid
Executive Education
Published: 15 June 2018

Do you get the sense that your leaders are holding back? Would you like them to speak up more, to share their opinions – and to challenge yours?!

If this is your experience, it is likely that fear is at play. I’m not talking about you instilling fear into your leaders, but your leaders experiencing fear from within – fear of being found out, often known as Impostor Syndrome, fear of losing their reputation, fear of failure.

3 key challenges of transitioning to leadership
In my work helping senior managers and directors step up to the next level of leadership, I have witnessed them grappling with 3 key challenges :

  1. As the scope of their responsibility increases, they find they are expected to have opinions and make decisions in situations that are new to them. They can no longer rely on their subject matter expertise, yet they’re afraid of looking stupid.
  2. As their visibility increases, the stakes get higher and there is further to fall if they say or do something wrong.
  3. They’re afraid of letting go of managing to attend to strategic priorities, especially in the context of limited resource. They’re expected to disrupt yet they’re afraid of failing.

Whilst these leaders may appear outwardly confident, they are subject to negative thoughts, feelings of anxiety and fear, and behavioural patterns such as perfectionism, procrastination and people-pleasing which keep them from lifting their head above the parapet.

Fear stunts creativity
According to an IBM study of 150 CEOs globally, creativity is regarded as the most important skill for future leaders whilst many CEOs are concerned that their emerging leaders are lacking in the ability to think strategically and manage change effectively.

However, when fear is at play, surviving becomes more important than innovation and independent thinking. That means pleasing you becomes more important than pushing back and doing it “right” becomes more important than changing the game.

Fear is human
Fear has been essential to our survival from the day we were born. It goes back to our need to be alert for a tiger in the bushes even when there wasn’t one, and we continue to exercise tendencies to fight, fly, freeze – or appease – to deal with situations which cause us stress. The problem is that our perception of threat in the modern-day is exaggerated – as the CEO, you may often be the “tiger” your leaders are afraid of!

3 steps to fear-free leadership
Through my work, I have found there are 3 essential steps to helping leaders overcome fear : 1) Awareness, 2) Design, and 3) Practice. Given how we think, how we feel and how we hold our body are interdependent, this approach involves our entire physiology.

1) Awareness
The first step is for the leader to identify what situations trigger fear – for example, influencing a senior stakeholder or facing a multitude of conflicting priorities – and what their instinctive response is in those moments. This is easier said than done given at least 40% of our behaviour is unconscious, yet awareness can be the catalyst for changing behaviour.

2) Design
The next step is clarifying how they want to show up in situations which provoke a fear response and what shift in behaviour will support that. This may involve challenging assumptions they are holding and experimenting with posture and breath.

3) Practice
When situations trigger fear and anxiety, it can feel as our body takes over – there isn’t room for making a different choice. For example, when one of my clients found himself in the spotlight in company meetings, his mind just went blank. Leaders need to practise disrupting instinctive behavioural patterns in low-stake situations so that we are ready to respond differently in critical situations.

What would be possible if your leaders felt able to express themselves fully? What could that mean for growth, for innovation, for engagement in your organisation?

For more information on how fear holds leaders back from realising their full potential and what you can do to help them, read Alison Reid’s white paper: http://www.beyondbounds.co.uk/white-paper

About the author
Alison Reid is a leadership expert specialising in helping senior managers and directors conquer new leadership challenges and drive business growth. An Oxford graduate, Alison has over 20 years’ international business experience with organisations including Procter & Gamble, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and BakerMcKenzie, specialising in leadership development over a decade ago. She works with clients in a range of private, public and third sector organisations across the US, Europe and Asia Pacific.

Alison helps her clients think, feel and act like leaders by raising their awareness of mindset and behaviours that are holding them back from performing to their full potential and helping them design, practise and embody strategies which maximise their leadership impact.