“The Only Thing We Have to Fear is …”

Managing personal and business fear in times of increased uncertainty

Terrorism, war, and acts of hate have a grip on our consciousness these days.  Media, including movies and books, capitalize on our fears and add to them by projecting visions of future evil.  Worries mount.

Conquering fear and worry - Mike Russell

Fear stifles innovation and agility.

We must know how to keep our fears manageable.  Otherwise, we will unnecessarily retreat from life … personal, and business.

Fear is good!

Have you seen the movie “Wall Street”? If so, you may now be thinking of the scene when character Gordon Gecko pronounces “greed is good” to shareholders.

The problem with Gecko’s statement, and mine of “fear is good!,” is that the qualifiers are missing. A desire to improve one’s condition can lead to good things, and fear can lead to good things. The key in both cases is to avoid the downside.

And no more so than in current times.

Here are some changes in thinking and concrete actions that will help you manage your fears.

Fear is good?

So how is fear good? Fear is a basic survival instinct built into us and has both mental and physical components. It saves us in emergency situations and is a normal part of human functioning. We need it for the true, immediate emergencies we may face in life.

Fear is good, but …

The key downside to fear is in our minds and the mental component of fear.

The yardstick for fear: “is the fear real or imagined?” And it is the imagined part of fear that gets us into trouble.

Seeing non­existent emergencies can be a sign of mental problems. For most people, that is not the issue.

For most people, this is the pertinent question: “is the fear real, sorta probable, or imagined?”  The problem with most of life is the “sorta probable” part. It is a great void between the “right now” real emergencies on one side and imagined pink elephants on the other.

One of our strengths as humans is the ability to think ahead and imagine potholes in our future path.  Unfortunately, this ability also allows us to overreact in the current moment.  The overreaction comes from unwarranted fear.

The more the future event is in the future, the more the “good” of fear decreases and the drawbacks mount.  Most any “emergency” in the future is a non-­emergency.

Fear of future events can be managed

Fear is an emotional reaction or worry about something occurring.  Immediate emergencies warrant some level of fear as the event is occurring. Other fears come from what we think are problems, or risks, that may occur in the future.

For non­-emergencies, we can directly influence our fear levels by how we think.

There are two main causes of fear and resulting stress in the workplace and life, according to Dr. Alan Weiss:

  1. Not knowing what will happen tomorrow.
  2. Feeling like you have no influence over what will happen tomorrow.

We can manage these causes of fear!

  1. Recognize we never will know exactly what the future holds
  2. Convert nebulous, internalized fears to specific, written concerns and then taking appropriate actions.

Yes, you can’t know exactly what will happen tomorrow

Saying you can’t know exactly what will happen tomorrow sounds negative. It’s actually quite the opposite. Acknowledging this is positive and freeing.

The first step is to admit to ourselves that at best, we might have some ideas about tomorrow but no hard facts. Once we do that, it becomes much easier to control and even stop related fears.

Recent events seem to increase the chances of some “bad” things happening tomorrow. The reality is that we never definitively knew about tomorrow, much less the future. Even before recent terror attacks, even before “9­11,” no one knew the future with certainty. So why does the prospect of future events bother many people?

The “bother,” and the heart of the problem, is the word “definitively.”

Change has accelerated in recent years. In the past, were so relatively consistent in the way we lived for so long, we grew used to the consistency. Once used to it, we began to expect this consistency, even though we had no way to know about the future. We structured our thinking and our lives around consistency.

The problem:

Our lives become brittle once we expect consistency.

We set ourselves up for failure, or at least failed expectations, when we structure all we do around things being the same “forever.” Peanut brittle breaks rather than bends. We become more like peanut brittle when we expect consistency. Any major changes in our lives cause things to break, rather than bend and adapt.

This need not be. Consider the differences between peanut brittle, your backbone, and jellyfish. Peanut brittle snaps under pressure, and on the other side, the jellyfish just goes with the flow. Your backbone, however, is very strong and capable of supporting great weight and stress. Yet your backbone is flexible – it bends rather than breaks.

You too can be strong and bend rather than break or be swept away in the midst of current events. Use the proven techniques below.

Yes – you can reduce fear and influence tomorrow

You can usually influence the future, and you can always change your perception about it.

Let’s start with the last point – changing our perceptions. Fears about the future are worries about risks coming true and devastating us in some way. So the same simple questions used to manage risk will help to manage our fear.

Start by asking these questions about your fears, one fear at a time:

  • What is the fear – what exactly am I afraid of?
  • What are the chances – the probability – that this thing will come to pass?
  • What will be the impact if it comes to pass?
  • How would I know that it’s about to come to pass? What “trip wires” can I identify that will alert me that I should prepare for its happening?
  • Is there any way to reduce the chances of it happening?
  • What preparations could I make so I’m ready when one or more “trip wires” indicate it’s about to happen?
  • What can I do once it happens to limit the impact?
  • Am I willing to do the preparations and pay the cost?

The first questions help move us from something fuzzy to something that is more defined. Once we write down what we know about a risk, it already seems much more manageable.

The latter questions provide pointers about what we can do – how we can influence – the future. Those questions identify if there are any actions we can take now to limit or even avoid damage in the future.

The last question about cost is very important. The answer actually gives us an idea of how bad we think the risk is in tangible terms right now.

The combination of the chance of the risk occurring and the impact once it occurs gives us prioritization perspective. If we’re unwilling to invest the time, money, and effort to prepare fully or even partially, then we shouldn’t fear at all. That fear is really not that important to us.

Natural risks like tornados, earthquakes, and hurricanes are good illustrations of how people apply the questions. People make their decisions about the worth of making preparations and how much they will allow themselves to fear the future.

Manmade risks are provide examples. We reduce the risk of future car crashes through driver’s education, driver testing, defensive driving, and the like. We reduce the risk of tooth cavities and decay by brushing and flossing. You can easily think of many more examples.

The problem is that we have asked and answered to a degree the risk questions in our lives, usually some time ago. Most adults are out of the habit of making conscious risk decisions when life was consistent. We’ve “forgotten” the questions and process.

So when a new risk or fear pops up, you may need to go through the process above and actually write down the answers. The good news is that this really isn’t news to you. The questions and process are just something to refresh your memory and use when necessary. Doing so puts you in control, rather than being controlled by your fears.

For leaders … fear is an issue for you, too

Fear isn’t only a personal issue. Any organization with fear levels higher than they should be will be less productive.  Less innovative.  Less agile.  Lower productivity, innovation, and agility hurt results and the bottom line.  Therefore, addressing fear is a leadership responsibility.

  • Leading implies a direction, so have one in your organization. This is especially important in times of crisis and high fear levels. Directionless organizations provide an environment in which people’s fears run rampant.
  • Use the risk management questions above to work on dispelling the remaining fear. Help any individuals work through the process from an individual perspective as needed.
  • Make sure you communicate what you are doing. People need to understand your actions. Otherwise, you will add fear about your possible actions.

The good news for leaders is that just by leading you will dispel some fear.  Inactivity on your part is like the captain of the ship sleeping while the ship is heading for the rocks … that does not give the crew confidence in their future now or in the future.

Nothing new under the sun …

Remember the ageless truth that we can’t change yesterday, nor can we predict tomorrow. We can, however, do something at this moment that will improve our lives now and also influence the future.

Using the process I’ve outlined will take some work, but even the work itself will begin to manage the fear.  Innovation and agility frameworks like Wrong Until Right will not work when fear overwhelms, so take action!

Fear is only “bad” and invincible if we let it be that way.  Don’t let it!


By Mike Russell

Note:  this insight is adapted from an article written just after the 9-11 attacks.  The methods to control fear then are essentially the same now.