Is Fear Killing Your Career?

We live and work in an era of rapid change, violent disruption, and great uncertainty. If this thought makes you feel safe and secure, well, something might be wrong with you. Frankly, perpetual fear is a sane response to the carnival thrill ride that is today’s workplace. And yet company owners, leaders, and employees alike must learn to productively coexist with fear if we’re to achieve any measure of career success.

Just as organizations must be bold, agile, and constantly reinventing themselves, so must the individuals who lead and work in them. That means no matter how tempting it is to freeze like the rabbit in the shadow of the hawk, we can’t afford the luxury. Hiding out in a state of fear for too long will kill a career.

When fear gets in the way, you’re not only less effective, you tend to be less happy and fulfilled. You may feel as if you are staying in the “safe zone,” but in reality, if you don’t speak up when things go wrong, if you don’t take risks, if you don’t trust others to make decisions, you end up in a far less safe place. Problems fester, teamwork unravels, and you miss opportunities to excel.

When you were first learning to ride a bike, the bike was tippy and unstable. Once you got moving, however, the motion of the bike created stability. You overcame the fear and got to a safer place. Biking became fun. In this way, overcoming your fears at work creates greater safety, stability, and fulfillment for you and the others you work with.

The good news is, once we’re aware that fear is holding us back, we can take action to overcome it. It’s not always easy, but taking bold action anyway—facing our fears and living to tell about it—is always the path to personal growth.

Here are some simple yet powerful strategies that will help you defuse your fear so you can speak up, take (smart) risks, build trust with teammates and customers, and ultimately move ahead in your company and career.

If you feel hesitant to speak up about a new idea, paint a clear vision, work with others to identify and address the obstacles, and get going. Fear thrives on vagueness, while clarity fosters courage.

Here’s an example: Tim, the production manager at a printing company, thought for years about a new way to manage customer orders. He kept his idea to himself, however, because he feared that if his idea were implemented, he would be the one blamed if the new process failed to work.

One day, at the urging of a coworker, he sketched a schematic of the new order management process and wrote a few paragraphs about how it would work. This took only a few hours, yet it gave him a much clearer vision to share with others. He bounced the idea off of a few customers and found that they were interested.

With this newfound clarity, he went to talk with his peers in other parts of his organization. Sure, there were naysayers and objections, but by clarifying his vision and bringing the obstacles into the open, he found that the company was able to surmount the challenges, one by one. Customers were delighted with the shorter turnaround time on orders, and company revenues surged.

Test the waters before jumping in full-force. The unknown is scary. When you are operating in unfamiliar territory, you don’t know what dangers may be lurking. The key is to stick one foot in, then the other, before committing 100 percent.

Michelle, a commercial furniture salesperson, was assigned to penetrate an industry segment—hospitality—that she knew very little about. She made a list of eight low-risk ways to learn more about how to sell into the industry. These included talking to her neighbor who had once worked for Marriott, calling on a small local hotel chain, and attending a hospitality industry conference.

Within a few weeks, the gaps in her knowledge had been filled, and she approached hospitality customers with confidence. The customers appreciated her fresh point of view and curiosity, and she quickly grew sales.

When I was nine years old at summer camp, a group of girls and I set out to walk through the dark from our tent to the campfire after dinner. The night sounds spooked us, and each girl’s fears built upon the others’. By the time we reached the fire ring where our leaders were, we were shaking in our sneakers. Here’s the moral: Fear breeds fear, and, in the same way, calming others also calms you.

When you work to calm the fears of your coworkers, you will feel more confident yourself. Reward courage and honesty in all those you deal with and reassure your teammates that they can speak the truth to you. When a colleague is worried about a difficult situation that they face, help them list the potential negative consequences and help them develop an action plan to mitigate these. When you help others overcome their fear, they will reciprocate, and you’ll all be stronger and more fearless together.

Share bad news, and potential solutions, promptly. Jennifer, head of the development team at a mid-sized software company, saw that her team was going to miss a key product release deadline. She knew that the sales team would be furious, as missing the deadline would put several key customer accounts at risk of defecting. However, she knew the sooner she informed her peers, the sooner they could start mitigating the damage. Sharing the bad news immediately helped Jennifer build trust with her peers.

Problems tend to get worse, not better, when you delay action. Sharing bad news is scary, but it’s also freeing, since keeping the news inside saps energy and creates stress. Once you’ve shared the news, you can kick into action mode and focus on righting the ship.

Take responsibility immediately when things go wrong—even if it isn’t really your fault. Fear can arise from a feeling of helplessness. When you take full responsibility for what you can control, you don’t have to worry that someone else might drop the ball—and that, subsequently, you will be blamed.

Brian, the customer service manager at a housewares supplier, makes a habit of accepting responsibility for anything that prevents an order from arriving on time and in good shape—even factors he can’t control, like shipment delays due to weather. He errs on the side of accepting blame and then focuses on solving the customer’s problem. His coworkers feel safe, so they do all they can to ensure customers are delighted.

If things do go awry, accept more than your share of the blame and focus on what you can do to help turn the situation around. When you accept responsibility and focus on fixing the problem, people tend to be incredibly forgiving. On the other hand, blaming others invites people to shift the blame back onto you.

Amanda Setili, author of Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets, is president of strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates. Her new book is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers. To learn more, please visit

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