Most of us are dealing with people who—one way or another—feel nervous. Is there anything more naturally human than being keenly alert to risks, dangers and threats? In these pandemic times, we hear constant reports of how deeply people’s fears have been triggered. Fear will either create change or block it. As we seek to establish new ways for our teams to function, leaders need to find ways to harness all this nervous energy into creative change.

In this piece, I will touch on the top 3 human fears, look at how these may be showing up in your team, and suggest an approach for each type. I so appreciate and respect mental health professionals. I am not trained in that field and do not attempt here to discuss therapeutic origins or treatments for mental health conditions. This blog is about how leaders inspire each other.

The top 3 fears according to a couple of recent surveys are: Social Anxiety (embarrassment), Entomophobia (critters) and Acrophobia (heights). I realize many other phobias deserve a mention. If you can, please consider whatever makes you most nervous as related to one of these headings.

Public Embarrassment
Still number one on many surveys, the fear of public speaking and other forms of social anxiety are about how we think others will judge us. My heart goes out to all who live with this at a pathological level, either in themselves or someone close. At an organizational level, most leaders underestimate how much ordinary, balanced and healthy people’s instinctual radar is predicting and avoiding or manipulating the judgment of their colleagues.

It is a common question in our coaching: How do I reassure my team after a series of layoffs? It is easy to imagine catastrophic rumors poisoning the team’s confidence as people head for the door. What we find works best is to build agreement in concentric circles. Start with one person, your most trusted colleague. Explore what he or she is afraid of and notice which expressions of candor, empathy and vision actually reassure. Then work it in your inner circle and then your leadership team. It may feel to you that you are repeating yourself. A lot. It is worth it. As you build a strong momentum of support among two then twelve, then fifty, social phobia starts to work in your favor when you are in front of the 300 or more. People’s highly-tuned social radar picks up on how the key opinion-formers are assured, and it is way easier to transform understandable feelings of fear into openness, even excitement about the future.

Spiders and Snakes
While it is triggered by different things, most of us have some nemesis—usually small and sneaky—that has us freaking out inside. As I write this, we have a coronavirus spike in Marin County where I live and fear of this tiny germ has had me up at night, pacing to release tension before going back to bed. I hear about all kinds of unexpected phobias. Butterflies, which I love! Birds. Even nomophobia (fear of not having mobile phone access). This kind of fear is all about what I might be missing. Instinctively, we know that we don’t see everything and, by creating a scary image of something small and dangerous that is out to get us, we make ourselves alert to the unseen.

We invite leaders to find deliberate ways to surface unseen dangers. Not only does making the space to talk about organizational critters—such as economic climate, competitive innovations or inappropriate workplace behaviors—make those fears less debilitating, it also increases awareness. Use the instinct behind this fear to activate all your people to look and keep looking for something important that we might be missing.

It is often said that the fear of success is stronger than the fear of failure. I think of this when clinging intensely to the railing at the Grand Canyon. I can feel my particularly noxious fear of heights—and also my fear entrapment—easily triggered by a steep drop or a shelter-in-place order. I don’t so easily feel my fear of success. I have that one nicely covered up and rationalized.

We encourage leaders to confront the fear of succeeding, of reaching a height of greatness and notoriety, by naming all the possible bad things success might bring. Expectations, guilt, ridicule, emptiness, loss of friendship, time or fun. With foresight, such things don’t occur in the same way. If you are ready for what might come, you won’t unconsciously sabotage yourself or your company.

If you have an experience to share about creatively engaging fears in yourself or your team, we would love to hear it.