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Facing our fears at work

During my interactions with others through my work it is clear that fear is still a massive barrier for many regardless of their age, experience or job.  It’s a topic that many experts have addressed and you can find thousands of resources on thousands of fears but it still comes down to it being very personal.

There is no shortage of fear.  Wikipedia lists phobophobia as a fear of phobias — a fear of fear itself and there appears to be new fears being discovered all the time.   I still find selfiephobia (fear of taking a photograph of oneself) a little hard to accept – surely it’s a new name for not like being photographed (fotografizophobia)!

Fear is nothing new

President Franklin Roosevelt famously pointed out “that fear itself is really the only thing we have to fear” and his wife Eleanor said “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along”.  They were a political “partnership” at a time where there were many fears to face.  I have to confess I have used quotes from Eleanor rather than the thousands of others available as she is one of my leadership idols – perhaps that is because she was known as controversial or because over her lifetime she made significant contributions to democracy, diversity and equal opportunities but it is also because she helped me to understand that scared is what you are feeling, brave is what you are doing but courage is often what is needed.

This was an important understanding for me and drove an interest understanding emotions to address fears in the workplace.

Bravery vs courage

Bravery requires you to repress your fears, but it takes courage to explore your emotions and the fear that controls you.  Courage is needed in order to face your emotional fears.  If you are afraid to speak up at work when your line manager is treating, you and others unfairly it will take courage to face that fear.   Bravery is what drives a bomb disposal expert to approach an unexploded device knowing there is real danger but that it is his duty to face that danger. One day we will live in a world where service men and women that return from active service are helped to adjust from a world of bravery where they knew what they had to do despite being scared to a strange world for them where they need the courage to unlock their emotions and be vulnerable.

Workplace Fears

So if we are going to be courageous and explore our fears at work then we first need to understand what it is we have a fear of.  I have heard (and experienced) many over the years:

  • Fear of losing your job or financial security
  • Fear of speaking up
  • Fear of being wrong (and looking stupid)
  • Fear of leaving a comfortable job for the unknown
  • Fear of stepping on toes or upsetting a colleague
  • Fear of taking on a more senior or larger job (and failing)
  • Fear of appearing a know-it-all (being rejected, isolated)

Naming or identifying the fear can be helpful but it is then acknowledging the emotions the fear creates in you and confronting it which is the tricky part.  It is often easier to talk about symptoms or behaviours first.  I can’t sleep, my memory is poor, I cannot concentrate, I am easily upset, I feel angry all the time, I feel detached, overwhelming anxiety….  I am sure you can sit quietly for a few moments and quickly fill a page of what you see and feel is happening to you.

Recognize and acknowledge your fears

Fear can manifest for many different reasons and cause you to reflect back on previous bad experiences.  Whilst this is natural the key is to stop and recognize your fear and the symptoms of it and acknowledge it.  I was fortunate enough to work with an amazing coach who was helping me deal with insecurities and self-confidence and she worked on techniques to help me acknowledge my emotions.  My solution was to name them so I created “Devil Dave”.  When I was fearful of presenting at large meetings all the usual fears appeared from feeling sick, to insomnia to worrying about forgetting words and looking unprofessional.  Over the years when my fears started to kick-in I simple acknowledged them.  “Hello Devil Dave, I see you are back – how consistent you are – don’t you ever get bored of trying to derail me?”.  Sounds somewhat crazy when you write it down but somehow by acknowledging the fears I found enough control to reflect on my preparation and leverage my adrenalin to deliver my presentation.

Harnessing your fear

The first time Devil Dave invaded my presentation preparation it took courage to carry on but gradually I started to understand my fear and expected Devil Dave to turn up.  What I then acknowledged was he went away – he was never there 2 minutes after I started my presentation and he certainly wasn’t there at the end.   Now I am frequently told I am natural public speaker, engaging and motivational and for me it is because Devil Dave and his fears heighten my senses so that I have the ability to perform efficiently and powerfully.  Thanks Dave!


Fear of failure or fear of the unknown often creates a kind of paralysis in us that means we don’t move forward at all.  We create so many obstacles in our minds that the future seems daunting.  How many times do you think back 6 months and you haven’t moved an inch or changed a single thing and you are full of regret and self-blame?  Fear makes us stay in our comfort zone.  We don’t like to be uncomfortable.  But often we are so focused on the end desire or dream like “I want to start my own business” that we then create reasons why we shouldn’t or couldn’t do that.  My advice is start – do something and embrace at least being a little bit uncomfortable.

If someone has never exercised, then dreaming about collecting a medal after finishing a marathon may be an inspirational thought but it won’t help unless you start to do something.   Walk 15 minutes a day at lunchtime, after work or now as the summer approaches in the early morning.  Make your aim a Park Run by the end of the summer – take small steps but start.

The same applies if you want to leave your job but you’re not sure what you want to do or how you could “afford” to leave the security of what you have.  Start a new saving plan and save money like crazy just for 6 months.  You’ll be amazed at how easy it is if you change what you do and your daily habits.  Don’t ever mutter the words “I can’t afford to leave my job” if you have never even tried to live differently.   Look online for networking events, videos, web sites and start to plan, research and consider possibilities.  It is incredible with social media and open access to information how much free help is around – was my first port of call a few years ago and it made me think more and not focus on my final career destination but instead the journey I could take.    You are not going to overhaul your life overnight but if you make one small change and keep doing that you’ll be someone or somewhere very different before you know it.

Find a fear hero

Fear Hero

Fear Hero

OK I admit it I made “Fear Hero” up!  But it makes sense to me that if we are faced with workplace fears then we can’t be alone.  There must be hundreds of people who are/were in the same place. There is even data to support it!  A study by job site CV-Library reported more than 35% of people surveyed feared public speaking, presenting or leading meetings.  Nearly one in twenty said they were frightened of liaising with senior staff, and another six percent are even scared of social occasions in the work place. Find someone who faced their fears and talk to them – find your fear hero!

Think about Batman, the fictional hero that stands up for justice and lives with integrity. The reason he became Batman? He wanted to face his fear of bats by turning his intense fear into a source of incredible strength.  So when you need to find strength and face fear in the workplace learn how to acknowledge, confront, and take ownership of your fear so that nothing can hold you back and take that very first, tiny step.

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