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.
While some people think of fear as some kind of irrational weakness, 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. 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.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
– H.P. Lovecraft
Is Fear Bad?
It’s easy to see fear as the “bad guy” – it’s damn uncomfortable, 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?
The Message 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, and fear turns into anxiety, a generalized feeling of stress: There are big problems.
When we can identify the source of the fear, we get insight. In a change, there are many possible causes of fear, and 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 African American woman who famously decided not to sit at the back of the during segregation in the US, 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.”
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.