We are physically confined these days, but our bigger problem is often the prison in our minds. We are trapped and tormented by fear.
During a recent coaching call, a client confided she was counting down the days to the fortnight anniversary of her husband’s last grocery store visit and consequent possible exposure to the Covid-19 virus. Yet another client frets about getting his affairs in order in case he’s the next casualty of our current nemesis. And, at work, most clients are fearful about the future financial viability of their businesses. Some are afraid to take on challenging conversations virtually. Others are afraid to propose bold moves and rock the boat.
We’re not just going nowhere physically; we’re also treading water in our productivity.
If you’re worried and anxious and allowing your fears to inform your actions or lack of actions, you’re not alone. You’re in the company of many of my clients, some of whom are Fortune 500 executives.
Four years ago, I delivered a TEDx talk about how to courageously push past challenging crossroads, failure, uncertainty, and self-doubt. My talk was informed by the many acts of courage my clients exhibit every day at work: not just occasional heroic leaps into the unknown but daily acts of daring. While executives might appear to operate from a place of ease and confidence, it’s the messy behind-the-scenes view I’m afforded in my work with them that reveals how hard their hearts pound when they choose courage. Knowing that we lose opportunities when we succumb to fear doesn’t necessarily make it easier to embrace risk.
In a world where you might feel captive to the crisis and constrained by your options, here are five strategies to choose courage so you can achieve your goals.
1. Notice, name, navigate. Fear’s evil twin is shame. Instead of denigrating yourself for being afraid, simply note your feeling and give it a name. For example, if you’re afraid of facing an audience, don’t shame yourself by saying, “I’m so weak, what’s wrong with me?” Instead, name your fear. You might label that sudden dry throat ‘Lackluster Larynx’. By naming the symptoms of your fear you can more easily tame them. You become aware of your thematic responses to stress and recognize you’ve survived them before. Knowing the eventual outcome will be okay, supports you as you acknowledge your familiar but temporary fear, rather than making it a source of shame.
2. Break the task into bits. Fear lurks right behind the corner of looming tasks. Actions that require mega doses of courage are more likely to expire on the shelf. By identifying smaller components of your objective, you’re more likely to take action and retain your sense of equilibrium. For example, if you’re creating a major proposal for a project and you’re afraid people will think your work isn’t strategic enough, start by identifying the smallest tasks possible to get started. In this case, you might start a new folder on your computer and a blank file with the project name, followed by a list of five sources of research, and so on. Start small, and instead of being paralyzed and overwhelmed, you’ll be freed to move to the next small step.
3. Pivot your perspective. One of my clients expends inordinate effort to avoid conflict. He convinces himself with logical arguments such as, “My colleague’s too busy dealing with bigger issues,” “I’m exhausted, it’ll be easier to tackle this on Monday,” or, a common favorite, “I need more data.” While his defenses for delay might be valid, they suppress his valor and exacerbate the complexity of unresolved issues. If you find yourself procrastinating with perspectives that sound logical and noble, interrogate your motives. What are you avoiding? Then articulate equally logical statements that are the opposite of your self-protective ones. “He has so many big issues to tackle, if I don’t raise this topic while it’s still small it will add to his burdens,” “I’ll torture myself with this all weekend and be even more drained on Monday,” or, “Even absent additional data, the issue is still troubling and worth raising.”
4. Make a future meeting. When we’re working to wiggle out of our own fears, it’s best to commit to someone else. Let’s say you’d like to propose a new idea to your CEO but are worried about how it might be received or whether you’ll have sufficient time for due diligence. Double the amount of time you estimate you’ll need, then request a meeting to propose your idea on your CEO’s calendar. Once committed, you’ll be less likely to procrastinate endlessly or do nothing at all and, by following the other strategies here, more likely to land your idea successfully.
5. Reach for reinforcements. When we push past shame and recognize that fear is part of the human condition, we can enlist support. Identify a handful of supporters, your personal board of directors, who can help you manage and master your fear to move forward courageously. They can aid you in many practical ways: from providing feedback on a proposal, to role playing a difficult conversation, to sending you supportive texts when you’re anxious, to debriefing after your plunge into a courageous situation.
Most courageous acts occur behind closed doors – amid sleepless nights, sweaty foreheads, and wringing hands. Busting open the doors to your fears allows you to push past self-imposed limitations. It also shines a light on your actions so others know they’re not alone in being afraid and can choose action to realize their own goals.
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