What Fear Looks Like
It might surprise you
Fear shows up in leadership more often than you might think. I’d even say it’s even a part of their daily life. But we rarely talk about it. We don’t talk about fear because emotions are difficult to talk about — especially at work. It feels tricky, even scary to confront this emotion. We also tend to avoid this topic because we have a narrow view of what it looks like.
If I asked you what fear looked like you might say things like wide eyes. We'd describe a person as trembling — their hands or even their whole bodies. Their face might look rigid or betray a sense of nervousness. Fear can look this way. This emotion also shows up in many other ways.
A raised voice often sounds like frustration. That same raised voice can be hiding fear. Being aggressive or argumentative can come from fear. It can look insisting we're right, even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
Fear can look like a wall of defensiveness when presented with feedback. It might show up even when presented in the lightest of ways. Stubbornness, resistance to new ideas, sticking to tried and true routines even when they stop working can indicate fear.
Endless questions that seemed aimed at proving their point can be a sign that fear has set in. A person fixated on something like they’re running on a hamster wheel spinning over and over again might be fueled by fear.
Sometimes fear masquerades as overconfidence. A blustery ego who admits no faults can be covering up a worry that they’re not good enough. Imposter syndrome and striving for perfection are the underlying cause of this type of fear.
At this point, you might be frustrated. The list might sound confusing. That’s because fear is confounding and slippery. Still, it’s important to try and notice when it shows up, especially in sly ways.
We often misinterpret fear. When we don’t recognize this emotion it’s easy to write it off as something else. Fear is often written off as irrationality, competence, or an anger problem. This is natural. Others' emotions, especially fear can trigger our own. Sure you can ignore fear — yours and others — but that doesn’t mean it will go away. Emotions are contagious. Fear can grow in dark corners hiding important clues for resolution.
With the pressure and feeling on stage, leaders can feel fear too. It can make them be overly protective, become aggressive and rigid in their thinking. It’s just as important to address it as it for those on the team. Maybe even more so. Emotions contain important signals from the body. They alert us to something going on under the surface. In the case of fear, it makes us aware of pain, harm, or feeling unsafe. Fear helps us protect ourselves, even when our actions don’t seem rational. When we take the fear head-on, get on the other side of it, we can see what’s really on the other side.
Fear rarely shows up in a vacuum. Fear arrives alongside other events — changes, starting a new role, beginning a new job, loads of ambiguity, and a sense of uncertainty. The next time you find yourself or others acting in confounding ways, check to see if it’s fear at work.
Until next time, be well.
If this piece resonated with you, please let me know and give the heart button below a tap.