Managing for Engagement: Fear is Not a Problem, It’s Information




This week it is time to get “touchy/feely!” Well…at least feely, specifically those feelings we call fear and its close friend anger.



Fear…most managers I have worked with do not know how to proceed effectively in the presence of this strong emotion. What they see or sense they

  • Often misidentify as disagreement or failure to buy in, or
  • Think that something must be wrong and they have to fix it

Some time back I was working with a group of engineers who had committed to producing a breakthrough in the production in their plant. As the project unfolded I met regularly with the Program Manager (PM). A very short time after the project was initiated the PM began complaining about one of his key reports on the team, a guy who was in charge of a critical piece of innovation that held the key to the breakthrough the team was seeking. If this guy and his sub-team did not come through the project had no chance of succeeding.

After hearing the PM’s complaints about this key player once I was quick to respond when I heard similar comments in a subsequent meeting. I asked the PM to describe exactly what his problem was with this player’s behavior. He responded by letting me know that this key player had made several promises which he had already failed to meet and he, the PM, was rapidly losing confidence that this guy was going to get the job done. I could see that the PM was angry and yet I knew these two men had worked together for years and had a positive history together. So I asked the PM what he thought was going on, suspecting that the he had already formed a pretty strong opinion that was shaping his interactions with this team member. “I don’t think he is committed to this project being successful, I think he is just going through the motions”, was the response I received and by his tone I assumed that he was pretty angry about this as well.

Passion, initiative, creativity…aren’t these traits what we all want from our team members? When that is not what we experience or observe, especially when the stakes are high and we are counting on each other there is a tendency to conclude something like what this PM had done. "The guy is just not committed, if he was we’d see flames shooting out of his pants and sparks flying off his head, not his door closed and our phone calls and emails not returned."

This was not the first such project I had worked on so I asked the PM if he would be willing to consider another possible explanation for the behaviors he was seeing. “Would you be willing to consider that what you are seeing are symptoms of fear?” is exactly what I asked. The PM seemed stunned at this prospect but then I went on to suggest that he himself was afraid and masking his fear with anger at his colleague. That comment brought on a prolonged silence. After a couple of moments of looking out the window the PM turned to me and said that yes, he had not recognized it but he was afraid, afraid that his goals would not be met and the anger was his way of expressing that he did not like being afraid. So I asked him further whether he was willing to just be fearful that the objective was not going to be met and take actions as if it were (This was a little trick I had learned when making my first parachute jump! If I had waited until I was not afraid that jump would never have happened.)

From this point on the PM and I were able to talk openly about both his fear and the anger that was covering it up. I pointed out that as long as he did not choose being afraid his fear was choosing him. Yes, there was all the baggage that is associated with our culture, men, fear etc. but the bottom line was that if he was fearful that is what he was, and no point pretending otherwise and no need to apologize. This was a big project with high stakes and as I told him, if he wasn’t afraid I’d be concerned.

Once we got through with our conversation he was able to approach his delinquent teammate and ask him about being fearful using the failed commitments as an entry point to the conversation rather than a club.

You can imagine how the rest of the story goes because otherwise why would I share it with you! That conversation opened the gates for all members of the team to talk openly about both their fears and their commitment to making the objective. No more excuses, the team moved ahead, the objective was met.

 As managers we’d do well to recognize that

  • Fear in the face of uncertainty is normal and it can be seen as information and not a problem
  • Fear is often disguised as pushback or inaction due to cultural taboos
  • Anger is often another cover up for fear. When we are afraid we are not going to get what we want, we frequently get angry
  • Until people are free to choose their fear as OK they are held hostage by this strong emotion

Where are you fearful at work and either pretending not to be or masking it with anger? 


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