Fear: what’s holding you back?

Posted October 4, 2010 in Latest News & Insights

One of the key motivational theories asserts that we humans are more motivated by fear than we are by desire.  Right now, I’m sure many of you are reading this and dismissing this theory as “psycho-babble”.  I know I certainly did.  So I made a list of things I love to do and I started thinking about whether my motivation to do them was driven by fear or by desire.  And that’s when things got interesting.

80% of what I had on my list was driven out of fear! Thinking that maybe I had a chip missing, I started to see if other people were as fear driven as I appeared to be.  So, as part of a motivation program I taught, I would ask the group to make their lists.  Typical things were: working out, spending time with my family, taking cooking classes, etc.   When I asked them if they did these things because of fear or desire, their immediate response was typically “desire”.  On further reflection though, the fear began to rear it’s ugly head.

The guy who ran every day because he “desired” to stay in shape, found that what was really driving him was a fear of having a heart-attack in his 40’s like his dad.  The woman who was motivated to spend time with her family realized that she was running from a “fear” of looking like a bad mother because she pulled in big hours at work.

Most of us can name a few fears that we have… fear of failure;  fear of looking stupid; fear of loss of status; fear of being laughed at; fear of success.  It’s actually an amazingly long list.  Fear is part of our innate survival mechanism and part of one of the oldest parts of our brains.  Fear will override just about anything if you let it.

As leaders, we’re often told that we have to be “brave” and show no fear in the face of adversity.  After all, who wants to follow a leader who’s seemingly quaking in their boots at every decision-making turn?  Fear shows up in leaders in a number of ways:

  • staying in an abusive work environment because the security of a steady paycheque out-weighs the desire to move to something more fulfilling;
  • not standing up to a bad boss because of the fear of the potential of getting fired;
  • turning a blind eye to poor performance because of a fear of not being liked;
  • avoiding taking a risk like going for a promotion because you’re not “ready” and then seeing a less talented leader take off in that role;
  • etc, etc.

The one thing that I’ve noticed in my own life is that, when I’m being driven by fear, I end up missing out on opportunities and, by holding myself back, I actually find that my fears start to come true.

Case in point: last year, I watched a friend live in fear of getting fired by her abusive boss.  Instead of confronting the bad boss behaviour, she ended up having her confidence ripped apart for months until she finally did get fired.  The fear that strangled her was the thought of losing her steady paycheque… the reality was that she lost that anyway and, worse, subjected herself to unnecessary months of abuse.

Sometimes, when you lean into your fears they actually lose their powers.  In my friend’s case, I wonder what would have happened if she had (constructively) confronted her boss.  Maybe the person would have listened (although not likely) or maybe she would have been able to negotiate a package earlier leaving her out of the situation and more emotionally intact and ready to find a better opportunity.

Most of us are driven by similar fears… the key to success seems to be the ability to feel that fear and do what you have to do anyway.

So, what are your biggest fears?  And, more importantly, what are you going to do to work through it?

Happy leading!


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  1. Melodie Barnett says:

    Fear of MONEY :).

    Great blog Glain. And I think I can relate to your friend above… and commit to never being her position… ;).

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