What are you scared of?
As humans, we are biologically hard-wired to treat every perceived threat in an extreme way, with one of four reactions:
- Fight: go on the offensive, reacting aggressively to eliminate the problem
- Flight: avoid the problem by retreating to a safer position
- Freeze: shut out the problem by pretending like it’s not happening, or
- Face: confront the problem directly.
Our Fight, Flight, and Freeze reactions are extremely efficient. They help to protect us from danger.
But they can also result in unwanted consequences, making us vulnerable to harm.
Fear Responses in The Workplace
As an employee, a manager, or a business owner, you may have observed situations where a leader’s subconscious beliefs affect their ability to make good choices.
I find that most management problems relate to three things:
- Feeling emotionally trapped in decision-making;
- Childhood experiences, particularly “Good Girl Syndrome”; and
- Believing you cannot succeed as a leader.
Each of these starts with an underlying fear, and a negative response to that fear.
Let’s explore them.
1. Emotionally Trapped Decision-Making
Unfortunately, while very efficient, our “Fight, Flight, and Freeze” reactions are not effective or useful in the long term. Problems will continue to occur unless we are willing to find the root causes and re-structure our thinking.
It is nearly impossible to sustain a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response, because each requires a high levels of adrenaline. The constant need to react to workplace situations will eventually lead to stress and burnout… and can even contribute to depression, anxiety, and other types of preventable mental illnesses (National Institute of Mental Health).
In fact, a study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health showed that managers (especially supervisors) experience nearly DOUBLE the rate of anxiety, and significantly higher rates of depression, compared to non-supervisory staff and owners.
The researchers had originally hypothesized that a lower social hierarchy level would result in more stress. But instead, they found that middle managers suffer the most, because they are expected to achieve results yet have very little power to authorize change.
The take-away: Provide your staff with the authority to make decisions. Ask them for their opinions, and make sure they are not experiencing burnout.
Read more: What Happened When I Became an “Employee For a Day”
2. Good Girl Syndrome
Another element of our fear response is from early childhood experiences, which affect our decision-making process.
The speed with which we subconsciously react to a perceived threat is often rooted in those experiences. Perhaps we were rewarded or punished for behaviors we now realize weren’t very healthy. They create a strong feedback loop that could still be affecting you now.
Women in particular tend to struggle to overcome what we call the “good girl” mentality. When we were children, our caretakers reinforced specific actions and discouraged others.
If you were a girl, you probably heard phrases like these:
“You shouldn’t be so loud.”
“Don’t do that, it’s unladylike.”
“If you tell on us, everyone will hate you.”
“Stop trying to be a boy; girls aren’t supposed to [speak up, argue, play in the dirt, think for themselves].”
“Just do what others tell you, and you’ll be fine.”
If you were a boy, you may have heard:
“Stop crying! That’s for wimps.”
“You have to hold your emotions in and be strong.”
“Real men don’t show fear.”
All of these are actual quotes that I’ve heard first hand (and maybe you have, too).
All of them are damaging.
They’re also all untrue.
- We should make ourselves heard when we have something to say.
- We should be true to who we are and question whether pre-set rules and traditions are still valid.
- We should confront bullies and shed light on injustice.
- We should learn to argue well (as a Devil’s Advocate), think for ourselves, and play in plenty of dirt.
- We should listen to our inner voice rather than always doing what others tell us to do.
- In addition, we should feel the freedom to cry, feel deep emotion, and show vulnerability (as an Empathetic Leader).
Dr. Lois Frankel has written some excellent books, including “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers” where she explains how to emerge from these distorted and destructive beliefs.
Effective leaders are able to face their fears by acknowledging they are feeling it… not by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Instead of subconsciously transmitting these fear responses to others (which is unhealthy and can be really destructive to you both professionally and personally), healthy feedback loops can help you can recognize and respond to problems without letting them get overwhelming.
The take-away: Consider the inner monologue that started in your childhood. Recognize whether you are hearing truth or distortions, and resolve to make healthy choices as a leader.
Read more: What Happens When We Avoid Pain in Decision-Making?
3. No-Win Situations
When you’re required to do something but not given the tools and authority to do it, it’s considered a “no-win situation.” Our natural response to this type of stress is to act aggressively, to hide, or to deny that it’s happening.
All of these “normal” reactions to fear can cause tremendous damage, however.
- An aggressive reaction can lead to hurt feelings and broken relationships (Fight).
- An unwillingness to talk about the true problems can cause an unrealistic perspective and faulty assumptions (Flight).
- And when we don’t take appropriate action, our team may lose trust in our ability to make good decisions in a timely manner (Freeze).
The best response to any risk—whether understanding our own blind spots or finding organizational vulnerabilities—is to Face the problem directly.
Successful leaders are able to recognize their fears, frame the problem objectively, and respond with a logical course of action.
The take-away: Be willing to accept responsibility for everything that happens in your business. Decide that you will face issues with courage, rather than hide or make excuses.
Read more: 5 Reasons to Share a “Year In Review” of Your Business
Helpful Tool: The Post-Mortem
Finally, one of the best tools I have found is called a Post-Mortem Evaluation (also known as Lessons Learned).
It’s a very simple but effective way to review a situation retrospectively by looking at:
- what happened,
- what went well,
- what didn’t go well, and
- how we can adjust for the future.
Read more: What is Strategic Risk, and Why Does It Matter?
Facing Fear as a Leader
While it’s normal to react to fear with aggression (Fight), avoidance (Flight) or denial (Freeze), the best and most useful response to any problem is to Face it head-on.
Every organization’s success is limited by its owner’s personality, strengths, and weaknesses. It is important to take full responsibility and seek to understand why the failures are happening.
The sign of a truly risk intelligent person is an ability to acknowledge blind spots (the inability to see what others perceive) and bias (preferring certain beliefs and avoiding ideas which contradict those beliefs).
I’ll admit, it is very difficult to be completely honest about your own failures. I spent years deflecting blame on others rather than accepting the consequences.
All of us find it much easier to pass the buck when something goes wrong:
“This is my employees’ fault!”
“If it weren’t for those darn customers, we could actually get some work done.”
But a risk intelligent leader can accept responsibility for bad outcomes, even if she or he didn’t actually cause the problem.
Once you’re willing to face the fear and do something about it, your level of Strategic Risk Intelligence will go way up.
Want help evaluating why your company is stuck? Find out more here.
4 thoughts on “The 4 Responses to Fear as a Leader”
Love the article! Very practical insights. On the quadrant graphic of “4 Responses to Fear”, I think I understand that the Vertical Axis shows our Engagement or Disengagement of the situation that caused the Fear. But what is Repelled or Attracted on the Horizontal Axis? I thought it might be People but it doesn’t make sense that “Freezing” would attract people. Thoughts?
Thanks so much for your comment! I’m glad you enjoy the content here.
To answer your question, the horizontal axis shows the degree to which the subject feels Repelled or Attracted to the situation that causes fear.
A Freeze response happens when we are pulled toward the threat (rather than retreating), but without the ability to Engage in minimizing the impact. The Face and Freeze responses are both drawing the subject toward the threat, but when we Face a threat we have the tools, support, and mental fortitude to recognize possible ways to solve the problem and minimize any damage.
I hope that’s helpful. Let me know if you have other questions or which other topics you’d like to see!
The sheet about “the 4 responses to fear” is great and very helpful. There are 4 dimensions of responses instead of only 3. The fourth one is to “face.” As an emotion I would prefer to mention “curiousity,” instead of connected. To connect is the necessary action to fulfil the need behind the emotion of curiousity.
I agree that the expected outcome of facing the fear is to preserve the relation and to mitigate undesired consequences of the situation. The dimension of to “face” might even lead to a more positive outcome than just to preserve and mitigate, it could lead to excellence!
Thanks for your comment, Ad van Ommen. Glad you found it helpful!