Fear – the major barrier in career development

There is a common psychological factor that is involved in many career-related issues and that is fear. What comes to mind for you when you hear the word fear? For me there are many different images such as of being a child in a dark place, concerns for physical safety, a feeling of nausea and dread that something bad is about to happen to me or to people I care about, a sense of paralysis or inability to act when you need to, the realisation that it is tax time again….

Fear is hard to pin down, and it is often difficult to detect in other people. Simply observing the behaviour of others may give a false impression. Some people can do things that we feel are immensely brave and then we discover the person was acting out of, or in a state of fear. Sometimes it is the opposite, and people who say they are fearful of something, ultimately when confronted with it, display fearless behaviour.

fearful employee

Fear can be classified into: subjective apprehension (e.g. worries), physiological changes (such as tremors in the hands), expressions (e.g. saying I’m scared) and attempts to evade or avoid situations. It can be focused and on-going such as a neurosis of being alone, or a phobia for spiders or it can arise suddenly for instance during an assault. It can also seemingly have no obvious cause or focal point.

Fear presents a major barrier in career development. For many people applying for a job is a key trigger, to the point that some will shake and others will avoid applying for jobs, or not turn up for interviews. Deciding to stay in a job or leave is another career development decision that is often accompanied by fear. Common fears relate to feelings of inadequacy, unpopularity, unfamiliarity, and advancement.

Fear is a major component in a failure to stand up to or to confront rude, aggressive and bullying behavior in the workplace. This applies not only to workplace bullying but also to commerce, where the fear of losing a contract, a licence, client or customer can lead to quite extraordinary behaviours. One of the most common reactions, sadly, is for those who are fearlful to lash out at others who they perceive to be even more insecure than themselves. Think of Basil Fawlty venting his insecurities on Manuel rather than addressing his own problems to get an idea of how people and companies sometimes respond when acting out of fear.

Fear can also be a reason for the very often pitiful feedback given to employees, and communication between people at work more generally. Some people have an enormous sense of dread about giving feedback to others, that results in them either avoiding giving it, or delivering it in a very charged and emotional manner that rapidly gets out of hand, becomes personal and aggressive and undermines the whole purpose of giving it.

Fear stifles some of the most important career behaviours we need to exhibit to be successful in the 21st century workplace such as flexibility, openness, persistence, curiosity, creativity, teamwork, and leadership.

Fear insinuates itself in the most of our lives, so it more a case of mastering fear rather than striving to eliminate or avoid fear. Spending your career running scared of real or imaginary demons is no way to spend a life. A first step might be to reflect on any areas of your career where you hold fears, and to develop strategies to manage that fear, you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. As Mark Twain said, “ Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear”.