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We live and work in an era of rapid change, violent disruption, and great uncertainty. If this thought makes you feel safe and secure, well, something might be wrong with you. Frankly, perpetual fear is a sane response to the carnival thrill ride that is today's workplace. And yet, nonprofit executives, managers, and employees alike must learn to productively coexist with fear if they hope to achieve any measure of success.
Just as organizations must be bold, agile, and constantly reinventing themselves, so, too, must the individuals who lead and work in them. That means no matter how tempting it is to freeze like a rabbit whenever a hawk appears overhead, you can't afford the luxury. Hiding out in a state of fear will kill your career.
The good news? Once you're aware that fear is holding you back, you can take action to overcome it. It's not always easy, but taking bold action — facing our fears and living to tell about it — is always the path to personal growth.
Of course, a certain amount of fear is useful. It prevents us from acting rashly and making ill-advised decisions. But it's not always easy to know when you've crossed the line between commonsense caution and career-squashing fear. With that in mind, the following behaviors are red flags you you should watch for:
You hold back your good ideas instead of speaking up. When you're about to voice an opinion, do you stop yourself, afraid of what others — your supervisor, especially — might think? Do you hold back because you're worried you may have overlooked a crucial detail or, worse, that your idea will be adopted and something will go wrong?
You procrastinate on the big stuff. Do you put off acting on important priorities, letting them slip to the bottom of your to-do list for weeks or months on end?
You perpetually play it safe. Do you find yourself taking the safest, least controversial actions at work, even when you know that the "safe route" in a particular circumstance is absolutely the wrong action to take?
You're always looking for someone to blame. When things aren't going well, is your first impulse to explain how others in the organization contributed to the problem? Do you waste time avoiding blame, rather than putting your energy into taking needed action?
You sugarcoat the truth or tell little lies of omission. This often happens when we're afraid to be the messenger of bad news. Perhaps you avoid telling a subordinate she needs to improve her performance, or you don't share with your supervisor negative feedback you received from a constituent or partner.
You don't trust others to do their part. Do you find yourself working long hours but accomplishing far less than you should be? Maybe it's because you're afraid to delegate and don't trust your peers enough to ask them to contribute to your projects. Lots of us default to the mantra: If it's going to be done right, I need to do it myself. The truth is, in today's fast-moving world, if you aren't moving fast as a team, the competition will pass you by.
If your own behavior raises any of these flags, fear is most likely dampening your effectiveness. It may be holding you back from speaking the truth or quickly taking action you need to take. And that can be bad news for your career and your organization.
When fear gets in the way, you're not only less effective, you tend to be less happy and fulfilled. You may feel as if you're staying in the "safe zone," but in reality if you don't take risks, if you don't trust others to make decisions, you're bound to end up in a far less safe place, a place where problems sit and fester, teamwork unravels, and opportunities to excel are missed.
Think of it this way: When you were first learning to ride a bike, the bike seemed to be hopelessly tippy and unstable. Once you got moving, however, the motion of the bike created stability. You overcame the fear and got to a safer place. And biking became fun! In the same way, overcoming your fears at work will lead to greater safety, stability, and fulfillment — for you and your colleagues.
So get on that bike. You'll be happy you did!
Amanda Setili is the author of Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets.