Imagine, you are asked to provide 360 feedback on a manager with whom you have a difficult relationship. Or imagine you are leading a team and no one is saying what they really think – you perceive that people are holding back their opinions.

Or what about a situation where leaders are physically closing doors … an acquisition has been recently announced but you and your colleagues know little about what the impact will be on the business. In all of these situations, most commonly, and not surprising, the overwhelming response is fear.

In my day-to-day work, I find myself in situations where training or leadership development is expected to be the answer. However, when one starts working with participants or a team, really trying to understand the issues, what often emerges is that there is a larger, unspoken issue.

Few are courageous enough to name the problem, or perhaps some have tried and been ostracized, or some others are trying in very indirect terms to expose it. Instead what wins out and what we commonly experience, is people acting out – with unproductive behaviours – as a means of coping with fear.

In my opinion, fear is a strange thing. Strange because it is so strong in its sudden and sometimes intense expression, but also pervasive – as in, people will draw on it and generate stories from it for considerably long periods of time. It feels somehow safer to expend energy on a version of my experience (largely fueled by fear) because then I can avoid conflict and hurting anyone, and at the same time not expose my fear, my vulnerability.

Truth is, fear keeps us trapped in this way. Now I know this is nothing new. We all know it. However, what might be useful is to take a personal audit of where you are exerting effort and energy around covering up or holding back because of a fear, and then ask yourself, what is the worst thing that can happen?

Some of you may know Chris Hatfield, the Canadian Astronaut who has been speaking recently about his incredible journeys into space. He makes this point that we ought to discern for ourselves the difference between danger and fear. Many of our fears are not about significantly dangerous activities, I mean, life-threatening dangerous. Many of our fears, in this way, are foolish and irrational.

Instead the all-consuming fear we experience is likely grounded is something much less dangerous, like a feeling that we don’t belong, or others may perceive we don’t have the answers. These feelings of inadequacy are perceived by our delicate ego as extremely scary. More likely what is rushing through our brains are questions like “am I going to be ok?”; “can I handle this?”; “am I equipped to change?”; “what will be the ramifications of this change?”; or “what will people think?”.

Key to understanding why these questions arise for people are two truths: 1. human beings are intensely hard-wired to avoid threats and 2. human beings are creatures of habit—many of us don’t like change.

Reality is we can through greater self-awareness manage our responses to threat: really analyze the danger there and what might be possible. Imagine, what if you could re-frame a threat into an opportunity?

That’s what some of the most resilient and optimistic minds out there do – come on, you know at least one. They’re probably that really annoying friend whom you continuously marvel at for their ability to stay positive. There is something there for us to try. In addition, we can also purposefully put ourselves into change situations or situations of discomfort regularly to build resiliency.

So, yes, I am suggesting that you should seek out situations that cause you discomfort and engage in them anyway because you know it is building your “wheelhouse” for adaptability and resiliency. In my opinion, this is what great leaders instinctively know to do.

The next time you get the burning “fearful” feeling, why not ask yourself: how dangerous, really, how dangerous is this situation? What purpose is the fear serving? Is the fear really keeping me safe? And safe from what exactly? What opportunity might I be missing by letting myself operate from fear? What else might be possible here if I let go of the fear and communicate what I am experiencing, seeing, feeling?

You may be surprised the impact you can have on your team, your environment and your workplace in general. Of course understanding how best to expose issues, communicate and influence others in the workplace is also a critical next step.

Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant