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On Fear

I have been thinking a lot about fear recently... What is it, why does it block us so often? What can be done about it? Is it important?

There are many different types of fear. The ones I encountered most frequently professionally fall into three main categories:

  • Fear of Change,
  • Fear of Technology and
  • Fear of Being Discovered.

There are many other types of common fears, of course: fear of flying, fear of spiders, fear of falling, fear of closed spaces, fear of open spaces. There are some less common fears: did you know that Steve Jobs suffered of Koumpounophobia: fear of buttons - apparently his fear of buttons went beyond clothing which may be why he started off Apple with a mouse that had only one button instead of two, then went on to revolutionize telephones by removing all buttons and replacing them with a touch screen! It shows that fears can be constructive as well as debilitating. However, within the general world, fear is more frequently a destructive force: it is arguably one of the two forces (with envy) which gives rise to manifestations of hatred. There are even fears which are considered to be hatred: xenophobia (fear of foreigners and foreign things) and homophobia (fear of homosexuals) are frequently confused with active hate.

Reactions to fear vary depending on the individual, some people run away, some people fight or bully the people of whom they are afraid, some people manage their fear and do something constructive, some lose their means and don’t do anything – there are as many different reactions to fear, few of them are positive.

Within the business world, fear can be a very destructive force as it stops people from moving forward. These are often demonstrated through fear of change and fear of technology, but I believe that the underlying cause of these is the basic "fear of being discovered". This is related to the fact that we are all acutely aware of our own limitations and shortcomings. We know the things we cannot do. Many people, internally, feel that they are actually just children who have grown up and to whom responsibilities have been given, but one day, someone will discover that they are improvising and they will lose their job and be publicly humiliated – this is reflected in the classic dream of showing up to a meeting and realizing you are completely naked.

New technologies, new processes, new business structures are obvious threats to continuity and safety. Frequently people doing a job, particularly those who have been doing it for many years, have their habits and their routines. They do the same thing every time and it works. Now, suddenly, they are being asked to change the way they work, to think about what they were doing routinely, to consider new approaches to the same task, possibly even to explain to someone else how they do it. This is the point when they suddenly realise that someone is going to discover that they don’t really know or understand what they are doing, all they know is that, whatever it is, it works.

So, we need to understand that the implementation of new technology, new tools, new processes, new methodologies, organizational change, etc. are not actually the cause of anxiety or fear. The fear is in most cases a fear of “being discovered”, which is combined with a fear of ridicule, or loss of income (redundancy). When confronted with employees who are refusing or appear afraid of a new work practice, management’s key role is one of education – as in so many cases.

This does not mean teaching them how to use the new tool, but helping them understand the impact, the consequences, the reasons related to the change.

If I understand the life of a spider, I understand that it is not interested in laying eggs in my ear or crawling into any orifices, I understand that it is not dirty or ferocious, my fear will be reduced. Once I understand that the immigrants coming to this country are mainly those people who are so desperate for work that they are willing to leave behind their loved ones, their lives, their homes: they are not just coming to take my job or live off tax-funded benefits – in fact, once I understand that the economic balance of immigration is positive, I will welcome them and not be afraid. If I can understand that the new technology is there to support me, to make my life easier and not just replace me with a machine, then I will understand that I do not need to be frightened.

The solution appears to be easy, but it is not. The solution is focused on education – which is a practice that has been largely forgotten. We have been, for many years, focusing on training rather than educating. We will train people to use the new tool, but will not educate them in understanding its benefits and value. We will train people to jump through hoops, do as they are told, we forget to teach them how to think.

However, more than educating people to help them overcome their fears, there is an additional option which would be to understand how to use fear productively. We do this on a regular basis: it is fear of death and accidents which encourage us to be careful when crossing the road, it is fear of failure which makes us work harder. Some organizations, such as political parties and organized religion use fear to increase support from those who can least afford it...

Fear is a powerful force, it can bring you down if you let it control you; it can give you strength if you decide to control it.

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