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In my experience, fear has always manifested itself in two distinct ways, which for the purposes of this post, I’ve labeled “instinctual fear” and “self-made fear”.

Instinctual Fear
Instinctual fear is the survival mechanism that’s hard-wired into our DNA. Its purpose is to trigger a “fight or flight” response to real or potential dangers, and it reminds us that “things that go bump in the night” might be hazardous to our health. This type of fear usually keeps us from doing really dumb things like trying to pet a rabid dog, or take a stroll down a dark alley in an unfamiliar neighborhood. For me, the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand up as a last-ditch reminder that I’m about to do something that my instincts tell me is probably STUPID.

In situations that pose an immediate or imminent physical threat, our first act must be to suppress any panic that we feel, followed immediately by engaging our experience and defense mechanisms which enable us to run, duck, fight, shoot, or whatever actions seem appropriate given the situation. Under no circumstances should we let our instinctual fear blindly control our actions. Panic is never the best option. We need to use the fear signal as the alarm to the thinking part of our brain so that we can quickly assess our options and then act with urgency. Now I’m not attempting to insult your intelligence here, but the reason I bring it up is to re-enforce the fundamental principle that we need to control our fears and not have them control us. Fear needs to be an “adviser” and not “the boss”, and this is especially important when dealing with our self-made fears.

Self-Made Fear
This second form of fear is far less beneficial, and frankly, can be down right debilitating. These self-made fears if left unchecked can be crippling to an individual, a team, or a project. We humans fear many more things than our physical well-being. Humans (even us “wolfie types”) have brains that love to invent fears. We often think about worst-case scenarios and fret over “what might happen if…”. This is especially true when we’re in positions of authority and part of our function is to actually plan for the “what if’s”. We recognize that what we say and do can have a significant impact on our reputation, our team, the project we’re working on, and potentially, the bottom line of our business. This responsibility can blur the line between what is, or could be real, and what is “trumped-up” by other emotions, and we must constantly “check our fears at the door” if we want to make smart, informed choices about things that matter.

These self-made fears can be broken down into a wide range of phobias (if you’re interested, click here to see a huge list of them), most of which go far beyond my level of expertise to deal with and the scope of this post. I am however, pretty good at working through the fear of “stepping outside the box”, which doesn’t exactly show up on “the list”, but has many underlying phobias contributing to it.

We typically like to stay within our comfort zones at work and in our personal lives. We may sneak in an adventure every now and then; we’ll try a new type of food or activity, travel to an exotic location, or impulsively buy something for the sake of wanting something “different”. But, when was the last time that you made a bold choice about something that could REALLY impact your life or your work place…and how did you deal with it?

So who’s driving the bus?…

We often talk ourselves into taking the safe road believing that our decisions are driven purely on the basis of our experience, but more often than not, we make these safe choices because fear is “driving the bus”. We often won’t consciously spend much time in assessing the alternatives to the “path well-traveled”, because the unknown, or less familiar paths are “scary” and the voice inside our head (yes, I do hear a voice, and no, I’m not crazy…well maybe) screams “don’t do it because you will [place appropriate negative word or phrase here], so why take the risk.”

Let’s face it; there’s nothing wrong with staying in our comfort zone most of the time. We’ve earned the right to reap the benefits of our skills and experience, and frankly, to actively question everything we do would pretty much guarantee that anything we do will take longer than it should. What I’m really talking about are those situations where we respond from a place of fear and not because of sound and rational judgment.

So how do we know when we’re likely reacting out of fear instead of via a rational thought process? Often, the telltale sign is the level of angst that we’re feeling about the situation we’re facing. Think back for a moment and search your memories over the last few months and ask yourself whether you’ve come across a situation (maybe more than one) where your angst level rose high enough to make you struggle with what approach to take. Did you take the time to analyze the alternatives with a clear and rational mind, or did you allow yourself to react based on what your “voice of fear” was telling you about all the bad things that would “absolutely happen” if you took a chance. Did you take the path less traveled, or did you take the safe road? Maybe it was a career changing opportunity, or a product feature that your team was proposing (or struggling with), or the realization that you made a mistake that you had to “fess up to”. How did you behave? If you handled the situation calmly and rationally (even if you ultimately chose to take the safe path), then congratulations! You didn’t let your inner “self-fear demon” get in the way of making what was most probably the right choice.

Deciding whether fear or your good sense and experience is guiding you can be difficult IF you don’t tease apart the problem in a logical and rational way. If you just casually allow your gut to make the choice, it will be a “crap shoot” as to whether you are letting your little fear demon ( I call mine George) take the driver’s seat, or whether your rational, experienced self is in control. Now don’t get me wrong, I really pay close attention to what my gut is telling me, but I also recognize that if my gut is being driven by an irrational fear, it WILL lead me astray.

In one of my previous posts (Growing Your Inner Wolf – Part 4) I brought up the concept of the “pregnant pause” when confronted with any new or unusual situation. This technique works well when we want to experiment with working beyond our default behaviors, but it also works extremely well when dealing with any self-made fears that might be trying to “grab onto the steering wheel”. I personally find that by taking a moment to ask myself WHY my gut wants me to take a given path, allows my rational mind to take charge which gives me a good chance of figuring out whether it’s my experience and skill-set that’s driving my choices, or whether George or one of his fear-demon buddies is in control. Of course, in order for this to work, you need to really understand yourself and allow yourself to be open and honest about the things that scare you.

If you don’t know yourself sufficiently well to be able to quickly assess whether it’s experience or fear that’s driving you, you can take a more methodical approach to seeking the answer. One way to go about this is to write down the most positive and negative possible outcomes to the situation. Often, seeing the extremes on paper (or your visual medium of choice) helps to clearly bound the problem, while allowing both the rational and irrational voices to be heard without either dominating the process.

The next steps can be as complicated or as simplistic as one wants them to be, and are often situationally dependent. There are a multitude of ways to build decision trees or matrices, or to analyze the best paths to success and identifying the risks that can lead to failure. But throughout the process, every time that a high-risk factor to success is identified, the key take-away needs to be whether the risk is based on something tangible that can be assessed and overcome or an intangible fear that is causing much more concern than it should. In doing so, you will give yourself (and your team if you involve them in the process) an opportunity to shake any irrational fears loose and concentrate on what is real and actionable.

In future posts I will endeavor to outline some specific methodologies that can be used to help with critical decision-making and risk mitigation which are both often over-influenced by fear,  but for now, this post is long enough, and I hope sufficiently thought-provoking to keep you busy for a while.

In closing, here’s a quote that speaks volumes to me and is now permanent addition to my Quotable Quotes page). I hope you find it as inspiring as I do.

  • “Many of our fears are tissue-paper-thin, and a single courageous step would carry us clear through them” – Brendan Francis

© 2010 John C. Rea and nothingbutwolves.wordpress.com

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In 1996 I was asked to present at a Project World Conference being held in Santa Clara CA. I was the Director of Program Management for a large division of 3Com Corporation at the time, and while I’d been managing projects and people for over 20 years at that point, this was my first experience at presenting to a large and diverse audience of fellow Project Managers. The presentation resonated so well with the audience that I was asked to present it at two more Project World Conferences in 1997.

This posting includes an exact copy of the presentation that I gave 14 years ago (except for the intro slide, which I just created), and in reviewing it after all of these years, I’m struck by the fact that some things never change…what was true in 1996, is still true today.

My world-view at the time was already evolving into proactively growing individuals into wolves rather than just “dealing with cat-like behaviors”, and this presentation (with a few tweaks) could be retitled “Preemptive Damage Control”…which is my term for the art of avoiding problems by actively watching and listening to a team so that they can be purposefully directed to “maneuver around them”. Enjoy it and let me know what you think.

Herding Cats (circa 1996)

While I’m on the subject of “Herding Cats”…here’s a very funny video that you might have already seen, but even if you have, it’s well worth a second viewing

Superbowl Commercial circa 2000

© 2010 John C. Rea and nothingbutwolves.wordpress.com

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