Executives and managers are tasked with juggling increasing pressures in the marketplace and workforce, managing a hybrid workplace, addressing challenges such as global warming through workplace strategies, and persisting in the face of uncertainty. Beyond that, the increase in social and political unrest and violence means that broader world concerns are affecting their employees in a variety of ways.

Given the stress of these pressures, nearly every coaching conversation with executives I’m having right now reveals a common feeling rising to the surface: fear.

Fear paralyzes us and leads to counterproductive behaviors. We postpone taking action because we’re afraid of making things worse. We focus our attention on short-term demands because we don’t want to confront the future. These actions allow us to hide from our true feelings.

One thing that’s common to these fear responses is that they’re anticipatory: We’re afraid of what is yet to happen. Our minds struggle with the unknowns, and we fill in the blanks with dire outcomes. We

convince ourselves that if we anticipate the worst, we’ll be better prepared for it, while in reality, our grim forecast encourages us to shrink back from bold moves.

Fear is manifesting itself in a wide range of ways in corporate hallways and virtual channels. For instance, many companies are preparing for continued economic uncertainty by tightening compensation. Managers hesitate to give tough feedback, concerned that over-stressed employees might flee. Individuals remain frozen in their existing processes and routines, too fearful to offer audacious ideas because uncertainty about the future makes them afraid to think big. Others fawn over their peers and managers because disagreement might single them out for criticism or worse repercussions.

In my discussions with clients, we’ve come up with four shifts in thinking to confront and tackle the manifestations of fear at work so they can move from paralysis to action.

From scarcity to abundance.

Many executives are afraid there won’t be enough: not enough employees, customers, money, fill in the blank. As a result, they cinch belts and squelch innovation. A mindset of scarcity inhibits expansive, innovative thinking.

To tackle this type of fear, try this exercise. Create two columns on a sheet of paper. List the items that are diminishing or scarce in one column, such as budget cuts and attrition figures. In the second column, list the items that are stable, such as the strengths of your team or existing infrastructure and processes you leverage. This exercise positions fears versus facts in a visible way. What evidence do you have of scarcity, and where have you found abundance?

From closing in to opening up.

Remote work has expanded our horizons, allowing collaborations spanning the globe. Unfortunately, because collaborating across locations — often asynchronously — can be more time consuming and meeting intensive than in-person work, it’s easy for us to prioritize our relationships with those we work with most closely. That inward focus keeps us from seizing remote work’s opportunity for diversity.

Many of my clients say that their hybrid environments have bred localization, shrinking the perimeters of where they work and travel. They’ve also more tightly circumscribed who they interact with. For example, given the glut of back-to-back video calls, one of my clients now only meets with those she works with directly. For teams that are outside her time zone or not directly involved, she requests updates via Teams instead of talking with them in real time. This is true of several clients whose meetings are more limited to those they work with daily.

But an inward focus also breeds fear of the outside, of the less familiar or familial. To combat this, consider gradual exposure. What’s one thing you can do this week to step beyond your usual perimeters? If you’re afraid of how the design team might respond to your engineering decision, can you invite a design team member for a video chat over tea or coffee and find out how they think about adjustments to your feature change? Experiment with where you can involve one or two different people here and there to widen your scope of interaction.

From freezing to moving.

When we fear consequences, we may think no action is the best action. But not making a choice is, in itself, a choice. If stasis stymies progress, then movement unblocks it. Start small. Instead of ignoring the requests to make a decision, assign resources, or launch a project, identify one next step to get moving. For example, you can poll half a dozen customers about how they use your product to further inform the path forward.

You can also try this exercise: Say you’re immobilized by the fear of disappointing anyone or stirring up conflict on a given project. On a scale of 1 to 5 (where is 1 is not aligned and 5 is very aligned), for each stakeholder group, write down the degree to which they’re aligned with your vision. By seeing the numbers listed out, you can then decide the right time to loop them in. Someone with a very low number would merit a one-on-one meeting, so they don’t sow doubt with the whole group. Someone with a higher (but not super-high) number might be better addressed in the group in order to fill in blanks where others might be similarly confused. You might realize there’s greater alignment than you thought, discover people you can ally with to mobilize opponents, or find that you’re the one who needs to change your mind given the wide variance between others’ perspectives and yours. At that point, you can figure out the next step.

From frenzied to facing our fears.

When we’re scared, we might spin up a frantic list of activities to avoid confronting our fear. Never before have we had to respond so diligently to every email, Slack, text, or meeting invite. The more afraid we are, the more we retreat from what spooks us by believing we’re too busy to tackle it.

Instead, block 15 minutes on your calendar to shut down all messaging and busy work. Name the perceived nemesis you’re avoiding. Write down three columns: the worst-case scenario, the current situation, and the best possible outcome. Then identify what would need to happen to result in each possibility. For example, utter failure might mean losing a marquee client, precipitating a cascade of customers leaving. Wild success would be increasing marquee clients by 50%. The current situation is one great client and two on life support. Writing specifics under each column, you might discover that your worst case is much more likely if you stick to your current choices than if you were to mobilize your team in another direction.

Anticipatory fear increases the chances that our dire predictions will be fulfilled. It robs us of the present and of the choices we could make to carve out a better version of our work and ourselves. Instead of remaining frozen in place, follow strategies to look forward to — and shape — the future.

Source: https://hbr.org/2022/10/how-to-move-forward-when-you-feel-frozen?

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