Use your fears to advance your career

    February 2, 2017

    Does the thought of organizing a high profile conference sponsored by your company make you break into a cold sweat?

    Are you having nightmares about handling an account for an important overseas client whose customs are very different from ours?

    Are you constantly anxious that you’ll unwittingly make a mistake at work that will cost you your job?

    Nearly everyone has at least one career-related fear. But did you know that regardless of whether your fears are founded in a realistic assessment of your abilities, with the right strategy, you can use them to your advantage and make yourself stronger, more accomplished, and more resilient?

    Before discussing some of these strategies, we first need to take a quick look at what causes fear and how it affects us. According to Robert L. Leahy Ph.D. in his Psychology Today article “The Gift of Fear,” all of our fears are survival-based and stem back to situations or things that could have cost our ancestors their lives. Fear was simply a survival mechanism that would hold us back from doing things or getting into situations that would kill us. Today, however, for most of us, unless we perform high-consequence tasks like military work or firefighting, making a mistake at work isn’t going to cost us our life.

    So how can you use your fears to advance professionally? Keep the following tips in mind:

    • Determine whether your fear is founded. If you’re afraid of failing because you don’t have the knowledge, skills, or resources, then your fear is doing precisely what it’s supposed to do: it’s telling you not to move forward. Instead, figure out what you need to overcome this challenge and make a plan to acquire the necessary skills or resources. For example, if you’re afraid of organizing a high-profile event because you’ve never spearheaded a similar project like, then make sure you get some experience organizing smaller, in-house events before volunteering for bigger ones.
    • Be rational. If you’ve determined your fear is unfounded, then you need to first, figure out precisely what you’re afraid of and second, create a strategy to handle that fear. In most cases, people are afraid of the worst-case scenario—which isn’t likely to happen. Let’s say you’ve got an important meeting with your company’s biggest client, who happens to be Japanese. You’ve handled other accounts from Japan before and you’ve done an outstanding job—which is precisely why your boss gave you this account! So why are you afraid of the cultural difference this time? Could the fact that the account it worth a lot more have something to do with it? If this is the case, then you’re simply intimidated because there’s more on the line than with the other accounts. Instead of focusing on the cultural differences, your best strategy would be to study this client to figure out precisely what their pain points are and how your company can add value.
    • Ask yourself what you have to gain or lose. Ask yourself what you have to gain by listening to your unfounded fears and avoiding challenges that could help you advance. Will you be more comfortable? Will you still be considered for promotion? Will you start to earn more? Now ask yourself what you have to lose. Will you be passed over for promotion? Will you become disappointed in yourself? Will you start to lose enjoyment in your work? 
    • Put it all together. You’ve figured out that your fear is irrational; that you have the skills to overcome this challenge; and that you stand nothing to gain and a lot to lose by giving in to the fear. So now it’s time to put the pieces of the puzzle together. For example, you know you’ve been successful in your dealings with other Japanese clients. You also know what your company’s value proposition is for this client. And you know that if you do a good job, it will be a big boost for your company and for your career. Once you’ve rationalized everything, all you have to do is take it step by step and apply your skills and knowledge in a professional manner.

    It’s important to keep in mind that we tend to lose our fears when we become more confident in our abilities. When you’ve successfully overcome a career-related fear once, you’re more confident, so it’s easier to know how to go about it a second time. And the more you do this, the more you’ll develop your capabilities, expand your knowledge, and advance professionally towards your career objectives.


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