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Is Fear Narrowing Your Opportunities at Work?

Three ways you can lead with hope.

Key points

  • In many organizations, the dominant emotion is fear.
  • Although fear may move us to act, it can do so in narrow and unproductive ways.
  • Ways to move forward despite fear include opportunity-based narratives, personifying the passion of the explorer, and making learning platforms.
Source: courtneyk/iStock

Is fear the underlying narrative in your organization? Do you spend most of your time, energy, and resources building strategies, programs, and teams to prevent a future threat from happening? For many of us, when we scratch the surface on our organizational culture, fear is the common thread that snakes its way throughout the way we operate.

“Too often the dominant emotion in organizations is fear, at both the highest levels and at the coalface,” said John Hagel, a retired partner of Deloitte and author of The Journey Beyond Fear when I interviewed him recently. “This fear is understandable, as we live in a world of mounting performance pressure, competition is intensifying globally, and the pace of change is accelerating. There are also extremely disruptive events that come out of nowhere and leave us scrambling to figure out what to do.”

The challenge is that while fear tends to move us to act, it does so in very narrow and often unproductive ways that accelerate our loss of trust, which cuts us off from important resources. For example, studies have found that when we’re driven by fear, we’re much less likely to call on help from others, which affects the outcomes we’re able to achieve.

But how can you flip the switch on fear and focus your energy and attention on your opportunities?

Our fears can never disappear fully, but John suggests the key is to find the motivation to move forward in spite of them through opportunity-based narratives, personifying the passion of the explorer, and creating learning platforms.

  • Opportunity-Based Narratives. Narratives provide an open-ended, personal call to action because the outcome depends on what we do. They describe the journey and why it is worth the effort, and catalyze our motivation to move forward. While threat-based narratives tend to reinforce a negative mindset and feelings of fear, opportunity-based narratives strengthen our feelings of hope and excitement and move us to act in positive ways that accelerate learning, drive innovation, and spark collaboration.

How do you see your future and what impact is this having on your actions? Understanding this and redesigning it to be more opportunity-based can help you move beyond fear and achieve your goals more effectively.

  • The Passion of the Explorer. Someone who has the passion of the explorer has a sense of opportunities available, is committed to increasing their impact in the field, and when they encounter challenges, they seek out others to help them resolve the issue. Most importantly, it helps us to overcome our fear and replace it with hope and excitement as we begin to address the expanding opportunities ahead of us.

What are you passionately exploring when it comes to the work you do? How is this supported by your narrative? If you haven’t found your passion yet, what are you doing to discover the domain that has the greatest potential to motivate you to achieve more because the excitement is irresistible?

  • Learning Platforms. When you create spaces where people can come together, they create new knowledge by sharing their initiatives and publicly reflecting on what went right and what didn’t. This does more than simply aggregate learning, as together they will solve problems and discover best practices via the power of crowdsourcing. By encouraging people to come together in small groups (typically three to 15 people) to collaborate on initiatives and build trust-based relationships, learning platforms accelerate our ability to overcome obstacles and roadblocks, increase our impact, and draw on the strengths of others.

Can you create a group where people feel safe to trial, act, and learn? You could create regular meetings where deep, trust-based relationships are developed, challenging debates are welcome, and the group is biased towards action, so people can learn and grow.

How are your narratives driving the outcomes you achieve at work?

To discover more evidence-based practices to lead at work, check out the Making Leadership Work Podcast.

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