When Fear Is A Good Thing

Author Scott Simon
Fear expert Scott Simon on how to help employees understand, harness and transform their fear in the workplace.

In the workplace, reframing fear as excitement and urging people to push beyond their comfort zones can have positive impacts on employees’ creativity and productivity—not to mention their well-being.

So says Scott Simon, founder of the Scare Your Soul global courage movement and author of Scare Your Soul: 7 Powerful Principles to Harness Fear and Lead Your Most Courageous Life. Simon spoke to StrategicCHRO360 about how HR leaders can help foster a workplace culture that embraces the healthy aspects of the emotion of fear.

How can we use fear to our advantage at work or with our teams?

Fear is one of the primal human emotions, and—ironically—one of the most misunderstood. 

Let’s be clear: we all need to feel fear. It keeps us safe, both physically and emotionally. But our brains don’t always serve us in allowing us to differentiate between real fear and the kind of ruminating, worrisome fear that holds us back from a great career. In the workplace, many have been taught that courageous leaders overcome, crush, conquer—and never admit to feeling fear. But fear can be a powerfully positive emotion if leaders can shift their mindset and embrace it, for others to see. 

Here are a few ways leaders can reinforce this idea:

Get real about fear. Reinforce the reality that fear is always present for everyone when we are growing, innovating and pushing our comfort zones. Company-wide, embrace pushing comfort zones. 

Reframe fear as excitement. When we experience fear, our bodies react in immediate and predictable ways. Surprisingly, when we feel excitement, our brains trigger the same reactions. So, be creative in helping employees verbalize moments that feel scary as enticing instead. 

Foster a workplace environment committed to courage. Bring together diverse employee stakeholders to agree on holding values like the honest sharing of overload or anxiety, ditching methods of rewarding perfectionism in exchange for bold thinking out of the box, creating team-building opportunities based on vulnerable interpersonal connection and team gratitude practices.

Encourage employees to do one thing every day that scares them – and walk the walk. When we do something every day that brings up a feeling of fear, we build our courage muscle. We gain confidence, self-efficacy and strengthen a growth mindset. When employees see leadership embracing a culture that embraces this mentality, it opens the door for more connection, innovation and creativity.

Anxiety is something that many suffer from, even leaders. Is there a way to reframe that anxiety into something more productive?

Workplace anxiety reminds me of the “duck syndrome,” the phenomenon of employees—and leaders, in many cases—striving to appear just like a duck gliding effortlessly across the waterline, calm and in control. But underneath it all is a different story: chaos, legs furiously thrashing.

So, the first step is to create an environment where employees can actually share that they are feeling anxious. They should not be told to “calm down,” but rather, that anxiety is a natural reaction to stress and uncertainty. Anxiety means we care; anxiety means we have skin in the game. Don’t demonize the feeling. 

And here’s the key: action is the antidote to anxiety. Do one thing every day that scares you is the North Star. Encourage employees to track one doable, courageous act in the workplace, such as speaking to someone intimidating or new, having a tough but necessary conversation, engaging in a new exercise class in the company gym or before work, proactively taking on a new work role, or taking the time to focus on self-care. Even one small act can halt the downward spiral of anxiety and reverse the trend toward empowerment; doing them daily transforms the anxious mind. 

You talk about harnessing fear rather than running from it, and you have a six-step plan called Climbing the LADDER to do it.  How does that work?

Living an engaged, growth-oriented work life means feeling fear consistently. So, what can we do when that fear strikes and we don’t know what to do? “Climbing the LADDER” is an actionable, step-by-step model that can be used any time by anyone. And it works. 

Labeling the fear:  First, we “name it to tame it.” Take time to slow down, get quiet, and really feel the fear. Notice where it comes up in your body. And then, write out what the fear really is about. For example, “I don’t want to share this idea because I am afraid of looking stupid in front of my co-workers.”

Accepting the fear: Ask yourself—kindly and without judgment—why this fear is arising. Where is it coming from? Maybe due to a past trauma or painful experience? Allow yourself the grace to experience this realization, even if it feels uncomfortable.

De-energizing the fear: Now, close your eyes and imagine your life if this fear just evaporated and you no longer had to carry it with you. And then ask yourself: What would it feel like to not have to carry this fear with me at all? Let yourself begin to feel the anxious energy dissipate as you consider a life without it. 

Determining real or toxic fear: Let’s get our brain’s prefrontal cortex into action. Think about the action that brings up the fear. Is fear protecting you from something physically or emotionally unsafe (real fear)…or is the fear more of an imagined worry you are creating by not wanting to fail, be rejected, experience change or loss (toxic fear). Real fears protect us; toxic fears hold us back. 

Effort and Reward action: Taking action is the ultimate form of stepping forward with strength into the void, into the uncertainty that is guarded by fear. If you’ve decided that the fear is a toxic one, say to yourself, “I can do this.” And then do it. And reward yourself for your courage! 

Rewriting and rewiring the fear: Our brain pathways are malleable and can be changed away from trauma and toward excited courage. So, after you have taken the effort to act in the face of fear, take time to process the experience. Remind yourself that you accomplished something hard. Let it really sink in. If the experience didn’t end the way you had wished, remind yourself that you are courageous for taking action anyway and that you have “agency” in your own life and won’t let fears keep you from living life.

What are some ways to help employees harness fears they may have when stepping into a new role?

It’s easy to forget how stressful it can be to be the “beginner” again, and stepping into a new role is bound to bring up sticky feelings. As a leader, you can help employees boost their courage by using the tips below: 

Expect the imminent arrival of imposter syndrome. This is common for people of all levels within an organization, regardless of their title. In my book, I detail many examples of people who feel like frauds even though we view them at the top of their game, including Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lopez and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Help employees to accept the learning curve and work past the imposter syndrome by recognizing it with them and encouraging them to view new projects as opportunities instead of challenges that they’re not qualified for. 

Be honest about what you don’t know. We all feel somewhat out of place when we begin something new, but it feels extra intense in a work setting. Great leaders will be open about what they need to learn. So be honest—even humorous—about the parts that feel foreign. When your workforce sees that this kind of culture happens at the top, it trickles down, and will help employees feel like it’s OK to ask for help—something that’s crucial in an open and transparent work environment. 

Foster a sense of service. When we feel like we can’t get out of our own heads and anxiety is taking over, flip your perspective to one of service. How can your experience, wisdom and skillsets help others? How can you be of service as a role model, mentor and leader? This shift in perspective can significantly reduce anxiety and boost empowerment and motivation. And giving employees a moment of vulnerability will help them relate to you, and better understand that they’re not alone.

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