Managing Fear and Change in the Workplace

Several weeks ago, I received a review copy of Dr. Brenda Shoshanna’s latest book “Fearless”. Dr. Shoshanna is a practising psychologist and therapist and has made appearances on national television networks ABC, CBS, and MSNBC, as well in numerous publications including Boardroom, Mental Health News, and Publisher’s Weekly.

Although her book looks at managing fear from the lens of personal self-improvement, I found that many of the ideas and concepts she shares in her book relate directly to the issues leaders face in managing their organizations. As such, instead of writing a review of her book, I invited Dr. Shoshanna to discuss with me some of the ideas she shares in her book and what leaders and businesses can learn from them.

TN: In your book “Fearless”, you write about changing our perception of fear and of the resistance many of us create, consciously or otherwise, when faced with the idea of change.  In fact, there’s an interesting line you wrote about change – “Change is a gift. Change is a friend” (p.35) . I think not just in personal life, but in business, change can be hard for many to openly accept.

People are programmed, deeply programmed, to want to keep everything the same. And that gives a sense of security, but really it’s a false sense of security because while you’re trying to keep everything the same all the time, life is nothing but change. It’s a kind of rigidity. The way to be most successful in your business and your work is learning how to be resilient and spontaneous and fluid; to be able to really live with change, to flow with circumstances, to be present for what’s happening right now. That’s the real art of it.

And when you’re flooded by fear, or when you’re flooded by anxiety, you can’t be present for what’s really needed right now in this moment. You might be living in the past or living in the future, or strategizing how it’s going to work out. But the real way to succeed is to be here fully and see what’s needed, what’s happening, and respond in a way that’s really on target.

TN: From a rational, intellectual point of view, I think most of us can agree that change is a natural part of life and business, and how being highly adaptive is a key trait for success. And yet, many still struggle with change, even when that change is going to help improve things, like allowing us to become better listeners for our employees or fostering some new innovative measures. So what’s behind this struggle, why is it that we have such a hard time seeing change as a gift?

What’s behind this are our feelings of fear, feelings that are keeping our anxieties going, that want us to keep things the same. So as we learn how to release these feelings of fear and anxiety – and these can be dissolved rather easily – we are more able to accept change and see it as a gift.

I want to add in keeping with this that our true security always comes from having real confidence in ourselves, and in who we really are, because when we know who we really are, we realize we have a wealth of gifts and resources and abilities to handle everything. But when we live on the surface, and don’t know who we really are, we’re not in touch with this.

TN: There’s another aspect to change that I think causes some of this fear in people and that is making mistakes. This is something you write about as well and I like that you pointed out that we “decide a mistake is a mistake” (p. 61). So how do we bridge that gap from being afraid of making mistakes and fearing failure and being weary of change, to recognizing that it’s up to us to decide how to view and learn from mistakes?

Well again this all refers back to fear, that we’re afraid that making mistakes that would make us look bad. There’s a wonderful Zen saying which is “life is one continuous mistake”. It’s natural to make mistakes, so you have to reframe the way you view mistakes. Rather than calling it a mistake, why not say ‘well, this is what happened and this is what I learned from it, and this is how I grow’. We don’t grow if we don’t try things and learn from the outcome or the consequences, and then adjust our activities.

If we don’t make mistakes, we cannot learn, we cannot grow and we become very rigid and terrified to do anything because we’re so afraid we’ll make a mistake. One of the wonderful exercises I have in the book is where I tell people you have to make three mistakes a day, make them consciously and go see what happens, because mistakes are your friend, they’re not your enemy. And you decide whether it’s a mistake. If you were to say ‘oh, look at how wonderful it is that I had the courage to try this. It didn’t work out the way I wanted, but how wonderful it is that I had the guts to get up and do something’, then instead of seeing it as a mistake, it becomes a success.

TN: I think this is the key differentiator between people who are not afraid of failure, who accept it as an opportunity to grow and learn, and those who do their best to avoid it, wouldn’t you say?

You’re absolutely right; that is the whole key. If you look at people who are considered huge successes, they have said they’ve failed a thousand times. They tried a thousand times, not because they cared so much about ‘how am I going to look?’, ‘am I going to succeed?’; what they cared about was accomplishing that task and they were fascinated by the challenge. And they saw that a mistake was just an opportunity to grow.

TN: I recently wrote on my blog about the importance of leaders focusing on command over control. Now in your book, you talk about control and how attempting to control others prevents trust, mutual respect, and open communication from taking hold. Could you tell me more about this connection, of how being controlling leads to an absence of these behaviours?

I love your distinction of command over control. I say the same thing but with different words, I say “choice over control”. You know, nobody wants to be controlled and when you try to control others, they will respond by resisting you. When you let go of this craving to control them and instead choose to communicate in a way that responds to their needs, you’ll have a much easier time getting them to come on board whatever project you want to push. But that whole craving to control comes from fear, and it comes from a lack of resilience, and lack of willingness to see other people as people and not objects to move around to fulfil your needs. No one wants to be treated that way and when you treat people that way, you are going to get a lot of backlash; it’s inevitable as that’s how people are wired.

TN: Undoubtedly, this is also what leads to conflict in the workplace and conflict is another topic you address in your book. In your chapter on conflict, you wrote “Conflict is not always negative, it can be a means of establishing a new balance when old ways of interacting are no longer effective” (p. 141). Certainly in business settings, there is a strong tendency to avoid or prevent conflict; that leaders prefer to encourage this atmosphere of there being ‘one big, happy family’. So how can we know when conflicts should be welcomed and how do we manage it so that it stays beneficial and not destructive?

Conflict is only destructive if both parties are determined to destroy one another. Conflict doesn’t mean one person is the enemy and one person is going to win and one person is going to lose. That’s the old model. If you respect every person’s part in it, and listen to it and learn from it, then it’s not about suppressing differences, it’s about welcoming them and finding a new integration.

If you suppress differences, if you suppress what you really think and feel, because you want to be one big happy family, you’re going to squelch your team’s creativity and motivation and their desire to succeed. What conflict means is that there are more than two different positions about an issue; that’s what a conflict is. So let’s find out what each person wants, what it means, why they want it, what it’s going to lead to, and why they think differently, and let’s try to make an integration of both sides and then you’re really go further.

So as long as all parties in the conflict are respected, and listened to and understood, conflict can never be destructive.

TN: My thinking on conflict is that if we keep the focus on what is our objective, how does it pertain to our shared goal, as opposed to our personal position, it’s easier to show respect for the other parties as the issue is not them, but rather which approach best serves reaching our goals.

Right, exactly and that’s very well put. You can also start in mediating a conflict by looking at what we have in common, our shared goal as you said; at what provides the greatest good. You know, conflict only comes because someone is not willing to listen to someone else; really listen and pay attention to them, and validate their value as a person and their point of view. You can validate someone’s point of view without actually taking it on or choosing to go that route and that person will still feel valued if you handled it properly.

The thing that makes conflict really destructive is usually when one person hates the other, they yell at the other person, they call each other names, and there’s no room given for everyone to treat each other with respect.

TN: Where can people find out more about your workshops and about your book “Fearless” and how can they contact you to learn more about what we discussed today?

There are two sites where you can learn more about my book – the first is www.becomefearless.org and the second one is www.DrShoshanna.com. You can also find out more on these sites about the workshops and consultations I offer to businesses and management on feedback, on communication, and the other topics we discussed today.

TN: Well, I certainly enjoyed the insights you shared today and how the lessons you share in your book “Fearless” can be applied to the field of business and leadership in helping us to better understand how leaders should manage those under their care.

It’s my pleasure and I’m grateful to you for inviting me to discuss my book with your readers.

Some other posts you may enjoy:

  1. Pastor Jones’ Book-Burning Controversy – A Lesson in Managing Confrontations in the Workplace
  2. Do Businesses Need the Millennials to Implement Change?
  3. Learning From Your Mistakes – 4 Steps To Turn Failure Into Success
  4. Social Media and the True Meaning of Leadership
  5. How To Put A Stop To Negative Self-Talk
  6. Reframing How We See Change


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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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