Fear Change

Understanding and using fear to support transformation

One of the most important emotions governing the process of change is FEAR. The word has such a negative connotation that many people are afraid to talk about it. We could say, “concern” or “doubt” or “unaddressed risk factors,” they’re all variations on fear. In 2020, millions of people are grappling with uncertainty (another variation on fear) and we’re learning how to live and lead through fear.

While some people think of fear as some kind of irrational weakness, it’s actually a form of strength, connected to our innate drive to protect. Tapping this powerful emotion, it turns out that acknowledging and understanding fear is one of the most powerful ways of leading change.


Why Fear is Part of Change?

Imagine a long loooong time ago, two guys are walking through the jungle to get some lunch (by hitting it with a big club). One guy says, “Let’s go to the part of the jungle where no one else goes, there will be better hunting.” The other guy says, “You are absolutely crazy. That’s so dangerous – I head there was a GIANT dinosaur over there.”

What’s fascinating is they could both be right. A neuroscience tip: our brains are wired to listen to both arguments.

For survival, however, over all these years, human brains have learned that the second guy’s “let’s be careful” argument is more important. To help us survive, our brains will resist the “let’s take a risk” idea by generating a test: It’s called fear.

The big issue in change isn’t the change itself. It’s the fact that none of us knows what’s going to happen next. Change, at its core, is move from the known to the unknown. It’s going into that part of the jungle where there could be opportunity… and there could be dinosaurs.


Is Fear Bad?

It’s easy to see fear as the “bad guy” – it’s deeply uncomfortable, and it blocks us from moving forward… so it must be “bad,” right? A more useful view is that fear, like all emotions, is a message. Reading the message takes emotional intelligence – or “EQ” – which is thoughtfully using the data from our feelings to make better decisions.

People often talk about fear as a “bad feeling” or a “negative emotion” – or even weakness. In fact, fear is a healthy, useful feeling for protection. It assists us to evaluate risks. One of the most powerful ways of using emotional intelligence is to consider: All emotions are useful. When people are experiencing big feelings, say to yourself, “That’s interesting – they are perceiving something important” and then work to understand it.

When you’re in the process of change, tuning into fear is incredibly helpful because it gives us clues about the way we (and others) are perceiving the situation.

Key word: Perceiving. Fear isn’t about facts. It’s about the way we see. How are you perceiving the change? How do others perceive it? All too often we try to rationalize or explain away fears: That doesn’t work. TREAT THE FEAR AS REAL even if you consider the reasons illogical.


Understand and use fear carefully and change works.

Don’t and change fails.

Fear is the key to change.

The Many Messages of Fear

The reason we have fear is to protect from danger. Fear serves as a warning: Something you care about is at risk. Often we’re not sure what it is we care about (exactly) and what risk we’re perceiving (exactly). Then fear turns into anxiety, a generalized feeling of stress, and it becomes nearly impossible to pinpoint the perceived challenge.

On the other hand, when we can identify the source of the fear, we get insight. We can understand exactly what we’re perceiving to be the threat and against what? These are not questions we can answer at a rational level, and if we try, we’re doomed to miss the real insight. Fear is a FELT experience, it’s a wisdom more ancient and powerful than logic (albeit sometimes less precise).

In a change, there are many possible causes of fear. Will it work? Will people come along? Will I lose my current standing? Will I be left out? Will I be blamed? There are 3.67 zillion possible downsides, but each of us will perceive and care about different ones. Rather than guessing logically, by listening to fear, it can help us figure out the risks in advance, and plan for them. For example:

  • Fear of the unknown – the message is to identify more options of what could happen next.
  • Fear that the team will not function well – the message is to clarify who is remaining in the team and reconnecting with them.
  • Fear that people will react in a negative way – the message is to plan communication that is empathic and supportive.

Rather than shutting down fear, acknowledge that it’s the “right” feeling to have in the change process, and listen to it. By listening, you get insight, and then can plan the next steps of change more clearly.


From Fear to Action

In a sense, fear is your brain’s way of asking, “Are you sure?” in At the Heart of Leadership, I described the fear of standing at the top of very steep ski slope. You look down and contemplate launching yourself into this run. Depending on your past experience and skill and how you’re feeling that day… you might feel a little fear or a lot of fear. But once you take the plunge and start skiing, you feel excitement. Or you fall on your face. The moment of fear is a question: Do you really want to do this?

Rosa Parks, the Black American woman who famously refused to sit at the back of the during segregation later said:

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

Conviction and clarity send fear a message: “Thanks for your concern, but yah, I am REALLY sure, so I don’t need you right now.” Of course, there are many times when we are NOT all that sure, our minds are NOT made up because the path forward just isn’t clear. The trick here isn’t to try to push past the fear or “fake it ’till you make it.” Inside you KNOW that’s a lie, it’s just too much effort to do those mental gymnastics. Instead, try this: Time travel.

One of the fascinating powers of human imagination is our ability to step out of the present moment and consider: “What might it be like if I go down this road?” Imagination gives us an ability to shift perspective. To see from a different angle. In fact, all our emotions do that too… fear is simply saying, “look at this situation from the perspective of risk.” When we do that, we can see part of the  story, then we can do “perspective taking” (looking from a different point of view) and see some other part of the story.

It’s also important to remember that, especially in stressful situations, we look to others for clues about how to respond. In a fascinating article from American Scientist on the neuroscience of fear, we look at others’ behavior to help us know what to do – and fear is contagious. So particularly for leaders, it’s important acknowledge fear, to listen to it, and to move on with purpose and care.

Fear is valuable, and we need to listen – but we don’t need to let it paralyze us. Fear can be a useful friend, but a terrible boss. Listen to it as an advisor to help you evaluate, but don’t let it be in charge.

No feeling is a monolith.

Fear can seem huge, but it doesn’t work by itself.

“What else are you feeling?”

Both. And.

In the pressure to act, or the fear of fear, sometimes we get into a trap of dualistic thinking: Either I’ll be afraid or courageous. On reflection, of course that’s nonsensical – we only have courage when we also have fear… so what else do we have?

Rather than this dualistic “good/bad” framing, there’s tremendous power in holding feelings as: Both – And. We can be both afraid and courageous. Both determined and cautious. Both hopeful and worried.

One simple, powerful step is to ask ourselves and one-another: What else am I feeling? To the right is a little video explaining this.

Sometimes We Get to Do it Afraid

On our EQ Livestream about leading in this period (amidst covid uncertainty and the antiracist uprising), Princess Ayer’s Smith ended the profound conversation with a remarkable reframe: “Sometimes we get to do it afraid” (here’s the “must see” final few minutes of the panel).

This framing is transformational because it acknowledges many important truths:

  • To be able to be afraid means we care, and that’s a blessing.
  • To have some choice is a gift.
  • To have agency, to see we can step forward anyway, is a strength that lasts far beyond the moment.

After all, when we step forward afraid, in those moments when our voice quavers, isn’t that when we’re most likely to learn and grow?

One essential reason is that fear doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Big fear means we’re perceiving big threats and big opportunities. Change is an inflection point — the possibilities are here. Now. Unfolding. And when we’re really afraid, maybe that’s when we’re most awake to the world as it is  — and the world as it can become.

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