Fear is a powerful tool. It sends a signal to your body when danger is present and tells you when it’s time to run a way. But it can also cripple you from taking positive actions. Your mind sees the possibility of failure as a threat, and you immediately want to protect yourself by staying put and doing nothing.
Many people face this in their careers and professional lives. They fear that they’re not good enough to present that proposal, so they procrastinate. They don’t want to sound stupid in front of everyone, so they don’t say what they really think in meetings. Deep down inside, they might know that the potential upsides of taking actions outweigh the possible risks. But the fear takes over and paralyzes them from even doing anything in the first place.
Fear, the brain, and social conditioning
Margee Kerr is a sociologist who studies fear and is the author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. She tells Fast Company that at the physiological level, fear manifests in the same ways—whether the threat is coming from a bear, your boss coming into an unexpected meeting, or your anxiety around asking for a raise.
For people who have to work in order to live—which is most Americans—the biggest source of fear is often related to the workplace, Kerr says. “I’m talking about modern threats,” like a disgruntled boss or a hostile coworker. “When it comes to the things that are occupying our thoughts, it’s really concerning what is happening at work. Our culture is worked so much around the workplace and the approval from our superior at work. So much has come to rest on our jobs, not just financially but also [our] status.” At that moment when we when encounter situations that elicit fear, it can feel “like our survival is [being threatened] because so much of what we built our identity and ourselves on could suddenly be in question,” Kerr explains.
But unlike running away from a bear, the threat that you’re facing at work is often more imaginary than real. Here are three situations where your fear button might be holding you back more than moving you forward.
1. Staying silent in meetings
There’s a reason why the same people keep speaking up again and again in your meetings. A lot of people are scared to voice their ideas. Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, previously told Stephanie Vozza, “No one wants to look ignorant or incompetent, and there’s a fundamental asymmetry between silence and voice . . . Speaking up is effortful and might make a difference in a crucial moment—but it might not. Silence, in contrast, is instinctive and safe. When people are willing to speak up, it’s usually because considerable effort has been put into creating a culture of candor, learning, and innovation that facilitates the open sharing of ideas, questions, and concerns.”
Unfortunately, not many organizations prioritize creating this culture, and this hurts both the business and the employees. Businesses will find that creativity and innovation will be harder to come by, and employees might miss out on opportunities that would enable them to grow and advance in their careers.
2. Focusing too much on avoiding failure and mistakes
Part of your fear for speaking up might come from your aversion to failure. Your company might be soliciting ideas for solutions to a problem they’ve been struggling with for awhile. You have a few good ideas, but you’re too scared to mention any of them because you’re scared of the possibility that the higher-ups will reject them and think less of you. Or perhaps there’s an opportunity to take on a project in an area you’ve always been curious about, but because you don’t have too much experience in that area, you don’t put your hand up because you don’t want to risk making a mistake.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being cautious, but focusing too much on avoiding mistakes or failures can be counterproductive. You might waste valuable time “perfecting” a task when it would be more productive for you to do something else, Vivian Giang previously wrote for Fast Company. Or when you eventually do make a mistake, you’ll find it more difficult to bounce back and move on—which ends up lessening the quality of your work.
3. Not asking for help
No company ever expects its employees to know everything. Yet many employees put those expectations on themselves and avoid asking for help when they’re not sure how to proceed. They toil away, causing extensive delays to their team members, or they end up coming with something that’s completely different to what their boss wants. Or perhaps that employee is juggling several different projects, and they aren’t sure what to prioritize. So they burn themselves out for fear of looking incompetent, and once again, this lessens the quality of their work.
But as Elana Gross previously pointed out in Levo League, asking for help actually can make you look more senior. When you’re identifying what you don’t know or requesting guidance on what takes priority, you’re showing that you’re thinking with the company’s best interests, rather than just your own.
Training ourselves to react appropriately
Kerr says that while companies should think about how they can cultivate an environment where fear doesn’t run rampant, if you’re an employee, there are some steps you can take to stop fear from controlling your actions. For starters, very few workplace stresses involve life or death situations. “In those moments, even if [you] can’t do anything to address it, we can make a note to come back to it later. What is it that was so scary in that moment? If it’s speaking out in the meeting, why would speaking out be so scary?” She suggests mapping out the kind of responses that would be the most scary, “because once we write it down and acknowledge it, we can start practicing.”
Kerr is a big proponent of role-playing as a practice mechanism. “If you know you’re sensitive to stress, you can find another friend to role-play those experiences. As much as we can think through it rationally, until our [bodies experiences it], it’s hard to truly overcome it. It happens so much with adults, we just think we can think our way out of everything. But if we don’t experience it with our bodies, we’re not going to learn it.”