The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for people around the world. It has impacted our personal and professional lives in profound ways, fundamentally altering life as we knew it. Is there any wonder that more than half of North Americans recently surveyed noted that 2020 was the worst year of their lives? 2020 may also be remembered as the year of fear. We are in a constant state of hypervigilance, scanning the environment for possible threats. The level of fear is palpable.
Unfortunately, this is not good for us. While our fear response is evolutionary and adaptive (e.g., preparing us to face imminent danger), prolonged fear exerts tremendous costs on our mental and physical health.
Another striking consequence of fear is how it compromises our decision-making. As noted by the University of Minnesota:
Fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically. This impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions.
Given its powerful effects, how can we short-circuit our fear response and make more adaptive decisions?
One powerful exercise I use with my clients is based on the acronym for fear:
Many of our fears come from an irrational place. To prevent them from overwhelming us, we can ask ourselves this question: What evidence do I have to support my fear?
A few months back, I had a coaching conversation with a CEO who I’ll call Ray (not his real name) who was highly concerned that his job was in jeopardy due to the challenging economic forecast for his organization. To make matters worse, one of the Board members had been very critical in the last meeting about his request for additional funding to address an issue that could allow their organization to be more competitive in the months ahead. When I spoke about this with Ray, I explored what was leading to his fear that he would be out of a job.
I examined each piece of the puzzle in sequence. When I asked Ray to explain more about the economic performance to date, he noted that while revenue was down 50% from the budgetary projections, it was still net positive. Further, their performance was, on average, 60% better than their industry peers, many of whom had suffered significant downsizing or closures. In fact, he recalled the Board Chair and other Board members had congratulated Ray on how he had positioned the organization so well at the last meeting, a detail he had forgotten about.
When we moved on to discuss the highly critical Board member, I asked Ray what this individual was like in previous meetings. As he pondered my question, he realized this was par for the course. When he first took over as CEO several years ago, the Board member jokingly warned Ray that they would be challenging and disruptive, as this Board member felt that was their job.
As Ray reflected on our conversation, he sat back and breathed a sigh of relief and chuckled at how much his fear was affecting him. Before our conversation, he was considering removing his request for new funding, for fear of a negative reaction. In light of our discussion, he felt more confident in his approach. Ultimately, he requested and received the additional funding, and the Board applauded his courage and bold leadership. Already, the company is being rewarded for these investments, with more positive results projected on the horizon.
This example highlights the benefits of facing our fears head-on. The next time you feel fear, ask yourself: What evidence do I have that supports my fear? Remember the famous quote from FDR: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”