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What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?


It appalls me how often fear is used as a "motivator" in the workplace. Psychology has known for over 100 years that fear motivation works very differently compared to "positive expectancy."  


Maybe this fact is hidden by the popular phrase, fight or flightFight implies approach and engage, while Flight implies avoid and run like hell away from the fight.  The overlooked fact is that "fight/approach" has a specific target but "flight/run away" doesn't.  Flight has no specific goal, result or destination.

Fight or Flight  

When a boss uses fear as a motivator, he or she is directing employees on what to stop doing while leaving unclear what to start doing.  


Worse yet, fear motivation applied regularly and to the extreme will stop all productive employee behavior. Fear-motivated employees prefer to work the grapevine, complaining about how terrible the evil boss is and how rotten employee morale is.  In short, fear "motivation" inhibits productivity and promotes the negative forces of de-motivation.


Have you ever participated in a SWOT analysis? SWOT stands for "Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and THREATS," and this model is used to facilitate "strategic" planning processes. Unfortunately, "threats" are things humans always fear first and avoid second. If the organization faces immense threats, the fear overwhelms its strategic planning and SMART goals.


Emotionally, how would you feel working in a company that sees its business environment as a never-ending series of major threats?  Threats produce fear and fear unchecked will immobilize your brain!


The "Tiger" (boss) isn't always the stimulus for feeling afraid. In our most recent LMI Newsletter CEO Randy Slechta, wrote:

"The economy is doing better, but many business leaders still have doubt and uncertainty about the future.  A recent survey in Harvard Business Review asked executives about their greatest fears. Number one was the fear of being found incompetent, also known as the "imposter syndrome." 


Number two was the fear of underachieving. "If you work for an ogre-boss, I know it's hard to believe there could be anything worse for producing conditions of fear and intimidation. But imagine if your ogre-boss were unpredictable in terms of when, where, how strong, how long his/her evil ogre behavior would last."


People, things, new ideas & change all produce uncertainty. Therefore, they can all generate the same powerful de-motivators because fear of the unknown can be as strong or stronger than fear of the known.


I borrowed this article's title from Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In." "What would you do if you weren't afraid" is a powerful question because it personalizes fear by connecting your actions and/or inactions to your emotional memories.


Fear In psychodynamic terms fear is denied, suppressed, repressed, projected...in essence, buried but never dead. Whenever leaders are in leadership positions, they often have recurring and unwelcome 3AM wake-up calls. When this happens to you, will your thoughts be pleasant ones of positive expectancy, or will they be fearful ones arising from what might be called life's negative residues?


The question then is: "How can you push back on your fears and do the things that fear is preventing you from doing?"  For starters I recommend you read "Lean In", cover-to-cover. Even though the sub-title is "Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" I suggest the book to anyone regardless of gender because it highlights finding and sustaining the Will to Lead.  In fact I'd argue that "will" is the secret ingredient to successfully do something you've been afraid to do for years (think diet and exercise).


Unfortunately, "will" seems a commodity in short supply these days. In the late 19th and early 20th century "will" was far more commonly relied upon to accomplish inconceivable feats. Today "will" seems to have fallen out of favor. 


Ideas like Will to Do, Willpower, Free Will, Iron-Willed, Strong-Willed and other terms seem antiquated, associated with times long gone.  Back then we were more familiar with people who were "Ready, Willing and Able," and we used the phrase to characterize someone who was not afraid to take action.  Such individuals probably had anxiety about taking action but it was not a disabling anxiety.


Why wasn't it? Because by being "ready" this person had a plan, clear expectations, and high certainty about what ought to happen.  And by being "able" the person had acquired the knowledge, skill and the repeated practice to bring these forces together to successfully accomplish the task.  And just possibly this person had some good-old "will" which used to be handed out generously as a cultural commodity of the USA.

Cheer up!  We are not yet helpless and hopeless. "Will" is a trainable attribute and when it is directed, it has the power to determine your future.  Perhaps at some point you'll look at the question, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" and your answer will be "That's a short list of unimportant trivialities!"


Don't Lose That Thought, 
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Allen M. "Dr. Al" Raffetto, Ph.D.
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