Leading Your Team Despite the Fear

Leading Your Team Despite the Fear

Here’s a topic not often discussed in the project team meetings:  fear.  We will talk about risk or name it something else like “potential problem” or “minor setbacks”.  But never fear.  Why is that?  Probably because the word “fear” comes with a lot of baggage, most notably that project managers or team leaders aren’t supposed to talk about fear.  But the truth is, fear is present whether we want to admit openly or not.  The leader has fears; the team members have fear; even project sponsors and clients have fears.  Fear of failure, fear of looking bad, fear of missing something important that sets the project on its rear…the list goes on.  Some of the fears are project related, some are personal. 

Regardless, fear still exists.

Am I wrong?  Here’s an example: 

Your project team is under stress to finish a complex effort within what it believes is an unrealistic timeframe.  Furthermore, the complexity of the project is such that there’s valid concern (make that a fear) that the “unknown-unknowns” will sabotage the team’s best efforts to deliver the clients project to specification on time.  A blown delivery date is bad and everyone on the team, you included, wants to avoid that calamity at every cost.  You also have a personal fear of looking bad.  Your annual appraisal is around the corner and your supervisor has hinted at a raise and a move to different division in the company.  Now you’re fearful of not only looking bad, but losing a raise and the dream job.  Think that’s going to affect your performance?  You bet.

Paradoxical Intention: Unleashing Exactly What You Fear

In a recent New York Times article (North, A. (2014, October 22). What Are You Afraid Of?. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com), Christopher Bader, a Chapman University sociology professor, commented on a recently completed study he oversaw regarding people’s fears.  “Sometimes when we’re afraid of something,” said Dr. Bader, “even if our fears are irrational, that can lead us to make choices that will actually cause the thing that we are avoiding.”

As crazy as this sounds, we can look to the work done by psychologist Viktor Frankl who found in his patients that they often brought into existence in their lives the very things they wished to avoid, something he termed “anticipatory anxiety”.  Applied to our example above about the project, your fear of completing the project late and losing out on a potential raise and dream position becomes exactly what happens. 

This paradox may seem far-fetched but I’ve seen it in my own career and life.  In project situations where I fixated on the “bad” outcomes in my attempt to avoid them, they actually came into existence.  However, when I didn’t fixate on the negative my team and I achieved better results.  Running a lessons-learned analysis, there were a lot of unknown-unknowns but both team and I were confident in our abilities to overcome the obstacles and do the best we could despite the unknown.  

From combined experiences of success and failure, a leader can use knowledge of anticipatory intent and the paradox it can deliver for his team to achieve the positive outcomes they desire by:

1.  Brainstorm with the team about all of the project’s potential risks and the fears each member harbors about the project (or their ability to achieve the project’s scope).  This takes serious levels of trust between all of the members.  When the trust-level exists, putting all of the fear cards on the table will be worth its weight in emotional gold.  Knowing what risks and fears exist, both for the project and the individuals, allows the team and individuals to develop mitigation actions.  

2.  Be confident.  You and each of your team members have experiences where challenging projects were fulfilled successfully.  Visualize them, celebrate them, and take inspiration from them that you can find the knowledge, initiative, and creativity to overcome the challenges you’ll experience in the new project.  If you’re embarking on your first project as a team leader or it’s the first project the team is working on together, spend time at the beginning of your collaboration highlighting one or two examples each person has of success in a project and why they think that project was successful.  We all have been successful in challenging situations, but we tend to forget it each time we begin anew.

3.  Lead through the risk.   In managing risk it’s important to include identifying what each risk is, what the range of impacts might be to the project, identifying branch plans to mitigate the risk, and identifying who is responsible for the planning and implementation.  But simply managing risk isn’t adequate; you need to lead through the risk as well.  Get in front of risk by purposefully visualizing they’ve occurred and how you and the team fix the problems.  Military units do this all the time before they go into a challenging situation by visualizing not only the plan, but each and every potential risk and how the team will respond.  Leading through the risk in this way gives the leader and the team the benefit of concept rehearsal and testing of mitigation responses to risk and most importantly, the confidence that they can overcome hurdles.

Personal fears and fear of project failure isn’t something to simply brush aside as it can lead to significant unintended results down the road.  Addressing the fears and risks that exist both within individual team members and the project at the onset, then leading the team through those fears by vocalizing them and identifying mitigation actions, are activities the project lead must strongly consider.  Much of project management literature is focused on management of the project risks alone.  But the risks go beyond the project to the individual people comprising the team.  Knowing the fears of the people on your team will give you the foresight of the silent risks that might lead to project failure, and hence allow you and the team to address the internal risks along with the external.

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, civil engineer, and author.  He’s an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally and author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life design for engineers and professionals. 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles and FreeDigitalPhotos.net