Managing Fear of Failing

fear of failingBob, a small business owner in the B.C. Interior, was working on a new project he hoped would grow his eco-tourism business. By teaming environmentally sensitive tours with extreme outdoor challenges, he hoped to create a kind of “extreme green” tour concept. Both the market research he’d done on the proposed expansion and his own business instincts convinced him that the risk he was taking was appropriate.

But Bob soon confronted his old demon – fear of failing. It happened each time he embarked on a new project: a vision of imminent disaster. “I’m going to lose everything if this doesn’t work out,” he told himself. These fears would inevitably cause him to get over-involved with the project. He’d micro-manage staff. He’d criticize people and spend valuable energy taking responsibility for workers and situations beyond his control.

It’s a given that businesses must constantly adapt to remain competitive. The fear of change that accompanies adapting is common and normal. It’s even helpful, forcing us to use caution, research our plans carefully and build comprehensive business plans before moving forward.

But in Bob’s case, too much fear became crippling. It blocked his staff’s ability to embrace new directions even though they may have agreed intellectually with the changes.

Most organizations attempt to deal with fear of change with a logical, intellectual approach alone. What they often overlook is the need to address the human, emotional responses to change.

Typically, people respond to fearful situations with behaviours like withdrawal, aggressiveness, avoidance, micro managing (as in Bob’s case), paralysis and denial. These emotional responses to fear are similar to how we responded to change as children. (Remember the fear you felt when your family moved?) Being able to resist them as adults in the workplace is a key skill in dealing with today’s rapidly changing business demands.

Self-awareness is necessary. For instance, we worked with Bob to help him be aware of and thus better manage his reactions to the change he had already decided was essential to his business survival.

While Bob understood the need for change, crafted an effective change strategy and had already selected and hired the right people, we helped him understand how he mishandled his own fear. We showed him how micro managing the team led to staff second guessing the quality of their work and doubting their own abilities. The result was that no one felt they could move ahead without Bob’s approval. Time was wasted. The enthusiasm for the project waned and Bob was on the road to creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

To aid Bob in getting rid of his micro-managing tendencies, we asked him to go through six steps:

1. Recognize Your Feelings.
Bob had to acknowledge he was feeling afraid – not always easy for a business person used to being in control. Previously, he put his feelings under the general category of “stress”. Recognizing that micro managing and criticizing were symptoms of his fear helped him see how he was compromising the project’s progress.

2. Identify Your Self Talk.
Bob learned to become aware of the tapes he played in his head. He noticed that he repeatedly said to himself “I’m going to fail”; or “This will be a disaster.” Bob was unaware of this catastrophic thinking. We encouraged him to analyze these statements for their accuracy and logic. Would he really fail? What elements, realistically, would contribute to that failure? Had he covered off as many of the risk-producing aspects of his expansion as he could have? We asked him to look at business conditions and his competition in a realistic way. Bob discovered disaster was unlikely.

3. Map Your Responses to Fear
Bob recognized his micro managing response to fear as familiar and predictable. In fact, Bob discovered that his attention to detail and analytic skills were essential to initially building his business. Attending to small details had ensured his previous success. However, as his business grew, this response to fear became an impediment. Bob identified a pattern where he began a new project, experienced fear, told himself a catastrophe was imminent and quickly responded by repeatedly checking employees’ work, being overly critical, worrying about future funding and infecting staff with his own fears. He finally realized he had to step back and let go to a degree.

4. Accept Your Emotions
Once Bob identified the his responses to fear he thought, “all I have to do is rid myself of fear and that will get rid of my micro managing tendencies.”. However, emotions are complex. You can’t just will them away. Bob discovered that a certain amount of fear was appropriate. But he had to respond to it in a more constructive way.

5. Plan a New Response
Bob noticed his difficulties began following a fearful emotion. He told himself “I’ll never make it” and promptly started to micro manage. Bob accepted he would feel fear on new projects so he decided to change his response. Rather than micro mange, he replaced catastrophic thoughts with statements like “I can do this”, “I’ve been here before” and “It’s going to work out”. He calmed himself before speaking to staff.

6. Enlist Support
Bob informed staff members that he tended to micro manage and he wanted to change this habit. He requested constructive assistance from personnel to help him notice any over involvement. Staff members agreed to help through humour, and open discussion, including reminders he was hovering. As a result, Bob empowered staff members to take initiative, maintain enthusiasm and help him change life long patterns. Bob grew as a leader by accepting fear and responding effectively.

In the end, the project was a success. Bob and his staff effectively launched their “extreme green” tour. Revenues continue to build and Bob’s staff enjoy a more inclusive boss and work environment. He continues to transform his staff team, push his business forward and move closer to his organizational goals.

When Bob occasionally slips into old patterns of fearful anticipation of disaster, he told us he notices more quickly and is able to respond before micro managing urges set in.

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  Dr. Newman can be contacted at: info@drjennifernewman.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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