Leadership Through Managing Fear

Leadership Through Managing Fear

managing-fearAs a manager you can demonstrate real leadership through managing fear – your own and that of your staff.

Daniel Goleman, when discussing Emotional Intelligence, argues that you can “choose your emotional state” and exhibit a rational response to trigger events. He suggests that managing fear in the face of threatening stimuli is an element in “self-mastery”.

The challenge, though, is that you have to learn to manage your automatic response in the face of fear. Humans automatically respond to threatening stimuli with either a “flight response” or a “fight response”. This automatic response can be life-saving when you are confronted with a real threat such as a potential car crash. The automatic response of taking evasive action is appropriate in those circumstances.

However, there are many situations in the workplace that you perceive as threatening where the threat is more imagined than real. The perceived threat can generate fear and precipitate an over-reaction or inappropriate response.

What is perceived as threatening varies with the individual and the context. So something you find threatening at work may not seem threatening at home. For example, you may perceive it as threatening at work when your status (e.g. as an expert) is not recognized. However, at home, it may be par-for-the-course to have your status (as an expert) not recognized by your teenage son.

Katherine McLennan, Executive Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, offers the mnemonic, S.C.A.R.F., as a way to help you identify your own personal fear triggers:

S – Status – e.g. perceived as threatened or not recognized
C – Certainty – e.g. perceived as threatened by change or lack of direction
A – Autonomy – e.g. perceived as undermined by structural changes
R – Relatedness – e.g. perceived as threatened by the emergence of new cliques
F – Fairness – e.g. perceived as lacking in a particular decision process (e.g. bonuses)

The challenge for the manager is to identify their own personal fear triggers and then learn to manage their automatic response effectively. Managing fear is a key skill if you are to achieve self-mastery and demonstrate leadership potential. The manager who always “loses it” is an unlikely candidate for promotion.

One approach to managing fear is to track your response to your personal fear triggers and analyze both your perception of threat and your automatic response. By doing this, you are elevating the issue to the rational level and enabling yourself to determine a rational response for the future. You may, for example, re-frame the perceived threat as something that has positive aspects. So if you perceive questioning by your boss as micromanagement (and a threat to your autonomy), you may re-frame it as expressing an interest in what you are working on or meeting a personal need for reassurance. This gives you a wider range of options for responding and may avert inappropriate, automatic behavior.

By managing fear and your automatic response, you are not only achieving self-mastery but also modeling this for your staff. You can help staff manage their fear response by helping them to identify their own fear triggers and working with them to unpack both the perception of threat and the nature of their response. This is particularly important in times of organizational change when the perception of threat to status and autonomy could be at its highest. The potential for inappropriate staff behavior can be reduced by providing as much certainty as possible when managing change. Clarity around goals and expectations provides a degree of certainty that reduces fear for staff.

Managing fear is a constant challenge for any manager but it is through the daily conquests of your automatic responses that you build self-mastery and self-efficacy and strengthen your capacity to manage your staff effectively.