Fear is endemic in an organization facing hard times. But managers should not show fears they feel to their team. It sends the wrong signal and can cause employees to lose faith. Stoic, perhaps, but it is the reality of leading in an organization. Fear persists, however, so how leaders deal with it is important.
First and foremost, the leader needs to remain in control of himself and his team. Until told otherwise the manager must adopt the command position by knowing and acting on expectations for self and the team. Moving forward, here are things a leader can do to deal with the situation.
Be realistic. High achievers fear something more than business failure; they fear they will not perform up to expectations. It is critical to address that possibility. One way is to game it out in your mind. Play the “what happens if” scenario for each action step. If this happens, then what? Or if that happens, what do I do? Rolling the scenario out in your mind may give you comfort of knowing the consequences. So often the unknown is more fearful than the known. “Fear,” goes the German proverb, “makes the wolf bigger than he is.”
Confide in a friend. Talk it out with a friend, preferably not a subordinate. You can role play the scenario with her as a means of gaining perspective. Invite your colleague to ask you questions. So often the simple act of speaking out loud is helpful. Verbalizing the situation forces an individual to frame the situation in ways that can lead to greater clarity.
Look for inspiration. Find an outlet to release your fear. Exercise is always good; keeping yourself fit is healthy. Some find hope in their faith; others find it in doing something completely different, perhaps coaching a team, volunteering at a shelter, or organizing a food drive. These things can be fulfilling because they get you outside of yourself by helping others.
Lighten up. Dwelling in fear is a zero-sum game. You must abandon that mindset. Make light of the situation. Lampoon it. Take a cue from humorist, Dave Barry, who wrote, “All of us are born with a set of instinctive fears–of falling, of the dark, of lobsters, of falling on lobsters in the dark, or speaking before a Rotary Club, and of the words ‘Some Assembly Required.’” Absurdity never hurt anyone.
Fear is reality when dealing with tough times, but how you manage it is the measure of effective leadership. One who succumbs and gives up surrenders the ability to lead. Standing up to fear, acknowledging its presence, and resolving to move forward, requires determination, and yes courage. That’s the stuff of leaders.
First posted on HBR.org on 10.08.2008