by Jim Bruce
At one time or another, we have each tried and failed at something, sometimes miserably. And, as a result we all have some fear that if we try to do the same thing, or something similar, again, we will again fail.
Not always. But, sometimes. It might be that when you have a new opportunity or are beginning a new task, you remember when you tried something similar, and it didn’t go well. So, you hesitate. Or, you might recall a time when you were laughed at or made to feel like a failure or ignored when you made a proposal or presented an idea.
It might be that when you didn’t meet expectations, all the feedback you received was about what you did wrong, with nothing said about what you did right or about other approaches you might have taken. And, it might be that nothing was said at all, leaving you, after working hard, putting lots of time and effort into the activity, with a sense of having tried hard, given of yourself, all to no avail.
I don’t have to try all that hard to remember a number of such events in my life. Memories of times I’ve tried and not done as well as I wanted to do flood back whenever a similar new opportunity appears. I’m sure that you have had these same experiences.
As I write this Tuesday Reading, I think of one of my granddaughters. She was very working hard at transitioning from crawling to walking. She’d sit up, manage to stand, and then try to take a step, and fall. She kept persistently trying. And, having watched this for some time that morning, I was not paying complete attention and missed the magic moment when she didn’t fall and simply walked off. When her father returned from doing some errands, I heard him exclaim, Emma’s walking!
That morning, when Emma tried and failed, she kept trying.
Many times, when we try something new, for example, speaking to a group, and don’t do well, we avoid similar opportunities in the future. Noam Shpancer,1 in his essay Overcoming Fear: The Only Way Out is Through, puts it this way: “… when you avoid something that scares you, you tend to experience a sense of failure. Every time you avoid a feared object or situation, your anxiety gains strength while you lose some. Every time you avoid the feared object or situation, you accumulate another experience of failure and another piece of evidence attesting to your weakness. Finally, avoidance eliminates practice. Without practice it is difficult to gain mastery. Without mastery, confidence is less likely to arise.”
The observation here is that avoiding your anxiety maintains and amplifies it. The flip side of this “coin” is what psychologists call “habitation.” So, in psychological terms, you “expose” yourself to something you’ve come to fear in order to “habituate” yourself to that anxiety. Rather than intensifying the fear, habituating yourself to the fear will cause the fear to subside.
So, in terms more familiar to us, if you repeat an activity, or an action, even if it makes you anxious at the beginning, it will, over time, become a habit that you can readily deploy.
Shpancer says that confronting your fear rather than avoiding it, will result in a sense of accomplishment and empowerment.
So, how do you begin? My experience is that having a repeatable process to guide you through a fearful situation can be helpful. Here is such a process that I have found to be a good foundation for addressing fearful (and those not so fearful, as well) tasks no matter whether it’s a new task – mastering a new application package, taking on a new organizational role – moving from team lead to manager, designing a new system – developing a process for on-boarding staff, presenting your team’s work to senior leadership, or presenting your work, etc.:
Most likely at some point in the near future, if you are truly honest with yourself, you will find before you a task that you fear. When you do, give the seven-step process I’ve outlined here a trial run. I believe that you will find it helpful and may want to make it a part of how you approach new tasks in the future.
Make it a great week for you and your team. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.