With Martin G. Moore

Episode #139

Fighting Fear: What does it take?

This week we take on a great listener question that will be on many people’s minds at the moment.

Fear has been stoked to extraordinary levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent impact of lockdowns and travel bans on many businesses has been severe. Many people are living in fear, as they see their companies struggling to survive, and are faced with the harsh reality of their own lack of job security.

What impacts are felt when individuals operate from a position of fear?

What can we do to keep our fear in check?

And what are the techniques for helping the people around us to keep going, so that we don’t see catastrophic impacts at the organisational level?

This episode offers some practical guidance for dealing with the fear that we all feel at times like these.

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Episode #139 Fighting Fear: What does it take?

This week, I want to answer a fantastic question from one of our Leadership Beyond the Theory alumni, Julian, who’s asked a lengthy question that I think is really worth exploring in some depth. Julian says:

“With the current dynamics resulting from the pandemic, I see a lot of fear going around. It’s understandable. Folks don’t want to lose their jobs when there are so few other jobs available. People are stretched financially and companies are straining at the edges to simply stay afloat.

What I see as a result playing out around me is fear. Lots of fear. Now, we know that fear isn’t a good foundation for good decision-making, and it impacts the psyche in myriad ways.

I’d love to hear Marty jump into this topic a little and his thoughts on:

  1. What are the impacts of working from a position of fear, both individually and collectively at the organisation level?

  2. What can we do to bring our fear into check, keep perspective, and keep making good decisions?

  3. What influencing techniques should we use to rein in the fear of the people around us so that we don’t suffer at the organisational level?

Great question, Julian. And so well laid out that I’m going to adopt that as the structure for this.

The Impact of Working From a Position of Fear

Fear is completely normal and it comes from our reptile brain. We don’t really have a choice. It’s deeply ingrained in all of us. It’s controlled by a part of the brain called the Amygdala. When danger is detected, the Amygdala prepares the body to protect itself. It’s the “fight or flight” mechanism we often hear about. I’m sure we’re all familiar with that feeling.

There are some obvious physiological signs that come with this. The body produces chemicals that prepare us for the immediate danger; adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, which causes our heart rate and our blood pressure to rise. This is so the blood is pushed to our vital organs, like the muscles. You might start to feel your muscle tension increase and given it’s the blood that transports oxygen throughout our bodies, this oxygen boost is used by the brain to increase alertness. All your senses become just a little sharper, your pupils dilate and so forth.

Breathing becomes more rapid and shallower, but the lungs open up to get the best use of the oxygen we have. We also get a release of blood sugar into the body. As the glucose flows into the bloodstream, the body is energised. It’s virtually impossible to stop this physiological reaction and it’s triggered automatically under certain circumstances. This is not the battleground we want to fight on, but we need to recognise the feeling once it’s triggered so that we can deploy our coping mechanisms. We need to train ourselves to move from “fight or flight” state back into the “rest and digest” state, but more on this shortly.

The important thing to realise is that fear directly affects our behaviours. When this happens, it dictates that we respond in a certain way. The response is long on self-preservation / short on rationality. It’s almost a given that we’ll operate and make decisions from a position of self-interest – “What does this mean to me now?”

This is when poor decisions are made, because even though we are physiologically wired to survive, it pulls us out of our more normal, rational state and puts us into short-term survival mode, at any cost. Your decisions will be (by definition) inferior, when you operate in this heightened state. Fear can also drive some unintended behaviours that are less visible to the naked eye.

One very common problem is avoidance. Some leaders go into foetal position, metaphorically speaking, when they encounter a fear trigger. Why? Because if you can remove yourself from danger, the body will return to normal and you’ll feel better. Unfortunately, when it comes to the fears that are typically triggered at work, even if you remove yourself through avoidance, the danger remains.

Fear can also turn into anger pretty quickly and we humans aren’t that far removed from many other animals in the animal kingdom, when they are cornered or threatened. For example, animals often try to make themselves as big as possible. Think of the way a King Cobra rears up and flares its hood, or the way a female grizzly bear stands on her hind legs and grunts her displeasure if she feels that her cubs are in danger. This is a natural response for us as well, as humans. We try to make ourselves appear bigger by being louder.

The impact that this can have on your organisation can be severe. Decisions are made for the wrong reasons, without full view of the inputs required. Then, there’s the speed aspect. Leaders frozen by fear choose to not make decisions in a timely manner and as a result, the tempo of the whole organisation suffers. Organisational momentum is everything, so you can’t have that happen because value is choked in the pipe. The people below are waiting for you to give them some direction before they can move. And even worse, if you react angrily when you feel fearful, your people will eventually stop bringing you bad news. You’re teaching them that you don’t want to deal with it by shooting the messenger.

It’s definitely worth looking up a couple of old podcast episodes:

They’re good oldies, just to remind you of these principles. Suffice to say, as a leader, if you don’t want your business to suffer the impact of poor decision-making when you feel fearful, it’s really useful to be able to recognise your physiological reactions when they’re triggered. That way, you can implement some better coping strategies, rather than just letting nature take its course.

How to Keep Your Fear In Check

We do a fair bit of work on resilience with our leaders. We teach techniques for coping under extreme pressure. We don’t ever go into this in detail, but learning to control your physical state is a real key. You may not be able to override the trigger, but you can certainly adapt your response, once the trigger is pulled by your Amygdala. “My body is doing what it’s supposed to do. Thanks for the heads up. I’ll take it from here.”

For me, once I recognise the trigger, the most effective thing is breathing. Slow, deep breathing right into the diaphragm. This will push you back into “rest and digest” mode automatically. When you combine this with relaxing the shoulders, the neck and the chest, it’s incredibly effective in counteracting the body’s natural response to fear and danger.

Once you learn to control your physical state a little better, you need to then learn how to deal with the conscious mind. There are certain questions that you can ask yourself to manage your fear by bringing perspective to any problem. You actually tap into the rational brain. Your mantra should be, “What I’m going through is NOT fatal. My body’s response was an overreaction!” In any sort of crisis, including a personal one, you can regain a lot of perspective by asking yourself some pointed questions.

Here’s some examples:

  • “How big a deal will this be in a months time?” (and you can pick your timeframe there – a month… six months… 12 months…)

  • “What’s the worst case scenario?” Now, I find it really important to use this concept of naming the beast. We always tend to catastrophize. Things come into our head and the range of possibilities for things going wrong overwhelms us. If we can actually work out what the worst case scenario is, we take away the demons. We make it easy to deal with, and it looks a lot more tractable.

When we’re in a tough situation for our business, we can ask ourselves things like:

  • “How material is the impact on our customers?”

  • “How material is the impact on our major stakeholders?”

  • “How material is the financial impact to our business?”... Quite often, we ascribe a level of materiality that simply doesn’t exist. It’s just not that big a deal.

All good leaders who’ve managed to pull themselves away from self-interest, ask questions like:

  • “Who is most impacted by the situation and what does it mean to them?”

  • “What lasting impact, if any, will this have on our people?”

  • “What lasting impact, if any, will it have on our business?”

  • “Will it do any real damage to the organisation’s reputation and brand?”

  • “Will it do any real damage to my reputation and personal brand?” 

All of these questions give you the opportunity to stand back rationally, assess the situation, put your fear and self interest aside, and come up with something that’s likely to be a pretty reasonable answer.

After this intellectual questioning, we need to look at mindset. Do you have an abundance mindset or scarcity mindset? This is particularly useful when we’re talking about job losses and new jobs. I learnt quite a few years ago to hold an abundance mindset, and it’s made my life immeasurably better. Whenever it came to my career, instead of focusing on the possible loss of a job, my mantra was this:

“If I choose not to be here for any reason, it will only be to make room for something bigger and better.” And also, “If the organisation decides it no longer wants me for any reason, then I’m way better off out of here, because they clearly don’t value what I have to offer. This makes room for a company that truly values the benefits I bring. And we’ll all be a lot happier because of it.”

99% of the time it never came to pass. There’s absolutely no point in worrying about something that may never happen. If you’ve got the right mindset, you don’t have to be drawn into the fear of that 1%.

You can see a lot about mindset from watching sport. Often when a team develops a sizable lead over their opponents, they change their mindset and approach. They try to protect that lead, slow the game down or shut the opposition out. It’s a really defensive approach, but often, unfortunately it’s counterproductive because it opens the door for the losing team to get back into the game.

This is a scarcity mindset. In other words, it’s seeking to minimise the risk of failure. What those teams often forget is the style of play that got them the big lead in the first place: confidence… an attacking mindset… calculated risk-taking – all the things that are the recipe for their success. These things typify an abundance mindset. So what? We posted 38 points in the first half? Well, let’s double that in the second half. Don’t ease back, treat it like the scoreboard says that the score is nil-all.

Another piece in the puzzle of managing fear is where you choose to place your expectation of control. You can have an internal locus of control or an external locus of control. The external locus says, “I don’t control my destiny. Things happen to me that I have no influence over… I’m a victim.”

The internal locus says, “I can greatly influence my environment by my actions. I refuse to be a victim. I make smart choices proactively, rather than waiting for someone else to saddle me with their choices.” 

Developing an internal locus of control will change the way you think about any situation, and provide the energy and confidence for you to take appropriate action. Ultimately, we take our cues from those around us. So just be really careful as a leader: you can either increase or decrease the fear in your people based on how you act. You’ll absolutely need to learn to get your own act together before you can make a difference to your people. This is why in flight safety demonstrations, they tell you to fit your own oxygen mask first – if you’re not safe, rational, and functioning, you can’t do anything to help the people around you.

How to influence the people around you

I’m going to keep it really simple today. With all the uncertainty that is COVID, and especially in relation to job markets, here are four things you can do to influence your people’s performance.

#1. Teach the tools

Don’t just make it implicit for you, make it explicit for your people. Talk to them about their performance under pressure. Talk to them about abundance mindset and internal locus of control versus victim mentality. Teach them to use the questions, to give some perspective. Make sure that you know exactly which questions to ask of your people to step them through any problem that’s causing the fear response.

Think of it from their perspective, not yours. You can say things like, “Hey, listen, instead of worrying about something that may never happen, why don’t we focus on this instead?”

It’s super easy to use the questions I outlined in the last break and they are equally powerful for your people, so you should give them that gift.

#2. Don’t relax the pressure

This is a really interesting one. We intuitively feel that when someone is having trouble, that we should ease off the pressure and make concessions for them, but this doesn’t actually help them. We think we’re being kind, yet it’s anything BUT kind from the organisation’s perspective.

You want to keep performance high and you don’t want to relax the standards. That’s something that’s completely within your control as a leader. The first thing about making sure the fear people feel doesn’t adversely affect the company is to not let them wallow. If you do, it reinforces any victim mentality they may have, instead of helping them to move through the problem.

From the individual’s perspective, the last thing you want is for someone to have too much time on their hands. I’ve seen all sorts of mischief when people have too much time on their hands. I used to say frequently to my executive leaders, “If this issue has risen to your level, then your people have way too much time. They just need more to occupy themselves and refocus attention.”

Now, more isn’t necessarily about volume of work, but also the quality and level of challenge that the work provides. When you’re worried about higher order issues, you don’t have time to get distracted by the ‘rats and mice’ stuff.

#3. Take a risk-based approach

Talk to your people about risk. Let them get used to acting on the basis of a rational risk assessment, rather than fear and misapprehension. If someone is worried about their job prospects, ask them what they think the risk of losing their job REALLY is. This will give you something to talk about rationally and often you’ll be able to allay their fears pretty easily. Get used to doing what’s appropriate in terms of time, energy, and money, to reduce the risk to a certain level, and then move on. Once your people see the relative levels of risk in all of the problems that face them, it takes the sting out of some of the irrational fears that they otherwise might spend the time dwelling upon.

#4. Communication is key

If your people are concerned about anything, you need to over-communicate with them. I mean, through all channels – group meetings, one-on-one sessions, emails, video messages, casual walk-arounds – let your people ‘talk’ the problems out, and become more comfortable with risks that I just mentioned above.

A critical realisation for any leader is that people hate uncertainty way more than they hate bad news. Anything that you can do to paint a picture of what’s going on that serves to reduce the uncertainty that people are facing – even if it’s not what they want to hear – they’ll take it on board and they’ll begin to move forward.

Don’t ever draw this out any more than you absolutely have to. I know a lot of leaders who say I can’t communicate yet because I don’t have all the answers. Well, you don’t need all the answers. Think of it as an ongoing conversation where you and your people explore certain possibilities together, and you fill in the gaps as the information and decisions come to hand.

Tying it together

Fear hits us all. At some point, if you understand where it comes from and you can learn to anticipate the physiological manifestations of your fear, you may have a chance of getting it under control. Coping mechanisms can be learned and taught, so choose to use the tools. Don’t leave it to chance when it comes to your people. You don’t do them any favours by trying to protect them or lessen the impact on them. Be open and transparent, and maintain the standards of behaviour and performance that you and the organisation expect.

As leaders, we need to be compassionate and we need to be empathetic. There’s no greater service you can do for someone else than to give them the gift of strength, as you help them through these problems. They become more able to cope with anything that comes their way. When it comes to the essential skills of life, this rates pretty near the top of the list for me.


  • Episode #20: Making Great Decisions – Listen Now

  • Episode #31: Don’t Shoot the Messenger – Listen Now

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