30. April 2015

Overcome fear by... measuring

Katrin Sauer

I hereby postulate: Whatever your fear may be - assessing it empirically will diminish it.
I know, that sounds like a bold statement, but...
As a coach, I very often work with teams and individuals who would love to change things. Many things. Big things, but small things, too. And they don’t. ”We can’t do that!” ”If we do this, we will get in trouble." These are all very common responses when I suggest “Just do it!”.
They don’t dare to implement even minor changes in their everyday lives out of fear. ‘For example, one team didn’t keep  their decorations - out of fear that visitors might think that they “don’t work hard enough”.


My colleague’s team didn’t have enough meeting space to sit down for an hour to discuss important issues. But they would never dare to go to the little cafe around the corner - their team leader might punish them for it...
Most of my encounters have two things in common:

  1. People arguing in this fashion usually work in an atmosphere of insecurity and pressure.
  2. They have never tried to find out if they actually will get into trouble.

This is where my suggestion comes in: Try a little change, and then measure what happens. You will be surprised!

Blocked by fear

Fear is an incredibly powerful motivator, or rather a powerful preventer. Just thinking about a situation that is unknown or possibly uncomfortable can keep us from going on. We are very good at fantasizing about possible (horrible!) outcomes. ”If we went out to meet in a café, then our boss would find out. And he wouldn’t think that it was necessary to meet, so he’d consider it wasted time. I will have wasted the time of all of my team, which will have cost the company thousands of Euros….”

Social context

Uncharted territory feels dangerous. To get a feel for it, we often rely on the input of people who’ve been there—done that. So what we really do is relying on hearsay - ”Liz from accounting told me that Lars from IT asked for this, and then ….”

Reality rules!

Fear based on these two points is one thing: It’s a hypothesis. We are assuming that something will happen. But we don’t know! And this is where measuring will help.
Well, measuring is a way of checking in with reality. Instead of basing our decisions on assumptions and rumors, we take a look at what’s really there.

 So how to get a grip on reality?
  1. Decide on what you want to change

To break out of the cycle of fear, you do have to take a (little) risk. Pick something small that you would like to change (you don’t have to start a revolution!)
For example: I had a colleague, MK, who was constantly interrupted by emails. He didn’t really have time to concentrate on writing concepts, because he kept getting his mail notifications - and ended up answering the mail.
MK was quite frustrated, but he took care of his emails anyway because he was afraid that his colleagues would be angry if he didn’t answer immediately.
His idea for a change was deactivating notifications and implementing time boxes for reading mail.

  1. Write down what you think will happen

Make a short list of things that you think might happen. This is the basis for your experiment, your hypotheses that you would like to disprove. 
MK’s list looked like this:

  • My colleagues will be confused, because they expect a fast answer
  • They will complain to me
  • They will complain to my superiors that I am uncooperative
  • I will miss important and urgent mails
  • Trouble!!!


  1. Be bold, and do it!

This is the hardest thing to do: You have to actually go through with it! Don’t run: it won’t be as bad as you think!
MK did the experiment for a week. He disabled the notifications and checked his mails 3 times a day. If you think he was nervous, you’d be right.

  1.  Check what actually did happen - and learn from reality

When you’ve done it, when you’re through, go back to your list and compare it to what actually happened. This is when you will almost always see: None of your fears came true. They held you back, although they were as real as the monsters under a child's bed.
In MK’s case, he found out that his colleagues didn’t even realize that he wasn’t answering their emails immediately.
Not one person complained.
He never missed important or urgent mails - people usually just called if they needed him at that instant.
He was flabbergasted. None of his fears had come true. As far as I know, he still only checks his email three times a day. (I can’t tell – and that’s the point!) 
I have also made this part of my personal approach to life, too – in accordance with in the undying words of Churchill (or was it Roosevelt?): ”There’s nothing to fear but fear itself!”

Katrin Sauer
Agile | Product | Coaching

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