With oil price at record lows, increasing competition from China and emerging economies, the threat of terrorism, and the slow recovery from recession, cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist Dr Lynda Shaw argues that business leaders are feeling a surge in anxiety that they are not equipped to deal with and are less likely to take even calculated risks.
“Fear can be helpful because it alerts us to danger, whether justified or not, however fear can also wreak havoc on a business by choking creativity and ambition. As humans we are unconsciously programmed to avoid pain, physical or mental, if it interferes with our chances at survival. When we are on fear alert we close down our focus in order to concentrate on the perceived threat. Excellent if we are truly in danger, but under normal business circumstances by narrowing our attention we are neglecting the bigger picture and can’t think creatively ‘outside the box’. We stunt real progress and a lot of time and energy is wasted.”
At the core of fear in business, is the fear of failing. “Whilst many successful business people have failed and will fail again, what makes them different to those who won’t take risk is they either allow the time to examine a problem clearly regardless of complexity and make a strategic decision, or approach the challenge in a heuristic fashion using their mental shortcuts based upon past experience in a similar situation. Both methods are well thought out and to a certain extent still need a leap of faith in one’s own ability and confidence.
On a personal level whether it is a small hiccup or a huge mistake most people will tell you the same thing; that these failures enabled learning. But that is all well and good if you are the only one affected. What if an entire business is affected by a poor decision?
Dr Shaw says: ‘Fear is a major stumbling block for many business leaders. Fear itself can cause them to make decisions which seriously sabotage their chances of success. Failure can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy if a decision is not seen through properly. Moreover, another threat to an organisation’s success is the fear that lives within its own walls. Business leaders can feel a strong need to protect themselves even if the psychological protective walls they build around themselves are actually making it harder for them to succeed.” At its extreme the clinical term forfear of failure, Atychiphobia, is an abnormal, persistent fear of failure, but fear as we all know at any level, can be insidious.
One solution to flushing out unwarranted fear is for leaders to break down the barriers and create a working environment that encourages employees to be brave, creative and positively engaged. Shaw believes having a series of goals which have to be achieved one by one helps with battling fear. “Even if your worst fears have become a reality, shrinking away from new business opportunities won’t help you or your business.
Tips for Overcoming Fear in Business from Dr Lynda Shaw
- Play Out the Worst Case Scenarios – When you refuse to think about your fears, they grow in your subconscious. Instead of letting that happen, drag them into the light of day and rationalise them. How likely are they to happen? It is important to contain fearand then find a way to work with it.
- Break it down – looking at the ‘big picture’ can feel overwhelming. So break down the risks and fearsinto small chunks and consult your experts along the way.
- Create a support and mentoring system – talk to someone with more experience than you, they might have some good ideas to help you move through it. Communicate your fearswith your peers.
- Accept failure. Failure is unavoidable. Keep in mind that one failure, or even a list of failures, doesn’t mean that you’re a failure.
- Reduce your stress – take a few minutes to collect your thoughts if you are feeling very anxious. Fearis like a bully, you may believe it has a strong power over you but truly it is a coward and when you confront it, it should slowly fade away.
- There is a part of the brain that is responsible for processing facial expressions and it picks up fearin others almost immediately. Control your fear, because others will notice if you don’t.
- There is no greater rush than doing something positive that you were afraid of doing, whether it be giving a presentation or hiking up Kilimanjaro. Don’t let feardeny you that pleasure. Have you ever heard someone say they regret doing a parachute jump?
- As Winston Churchill said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”, so don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes give you knowledge and makes you stronger.
- Try and surround yourself with people who want you to succeed. This will help you be more determined and persevere despite yourfears.
- Preparation is key, especially if you are making a speech or presentation. The more prepared you are the less likely you are to make a mistake or be asked a question you cannot answer. Don’t rush difficult decisions.