“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” —Pema Chödrön
One of the most fascinating behaviors I’ve observed in fifteen years of coaching is people’s tendency to create the conditions for what they fear most. Here are a few examples from my leadership development work with C-Suite and senior executives:
Some leaders make a career out of promoting certainty, a behavior typically driven by fear of not being in control. It is this deep fear that drives them to get over-involved in the specifics, for them to oversee every last variable to such a detailed extent that as their scope and responsibilities increase, they end up with too much to manage. The leader has created the perfect conditions for what they fear most—losing control.
Consider a leader who tends to downplay necessary dynamic tension within the team to avoid conflict. As a result, team members don’t have the opportunity for authentic, challenging conversations. In the absence of these minor “course corrections,” conflict drives deep down into the team. The culture becomes passive or even passive aggressive. Interactions become transactional and genuine conversations get shelved until eventually, team conflicts flare up. It’s unavoidable. The leader has created the perfect conditions for what they fear most—conflict.
Leaders who are risk averse can be afraid of uncertainty. Over time, being too conservative means that there’s little potential to generate new and innovative ideas. The company uses the same old models. It offers the same old products and services. The leader uses the same approaches and methodologies. As a result, customer relationships stagnate, competitors get ahead, and markets evolve away from them, leading to vulnerability, the biggest risk of all. The leader has created the perfect conditions for what they fear most—uncertainty.
Leaders with low levels of trust for their teammates, bosses and clients can be driven by a fear of being taken advantage of. Unwilling to be transparent and to provide the benefit of the doubt results in a mirrored lack of trust in the leader. The leader has created the perfect conditions for what they fear most—not being trusted.
Some leaders, convinced that they are victims of unfair judgement, will criticize their colleagues in the next breath. Deflecting blame and focus creates an environment of escalating judgement. Because the leader models judgmental behavior, their colleagues pick up on it. The culture starts to evolve and erode, accordingly. The leader has created the perfect conditions for what they fear most—being judged.
A Drive for Results
A leader’s drive for results is usually motivated by a fear of failure. Working hard can lead to a successful career, but driving others to deliver short-term results through intense and efficient directives often causes relationships to become transactional in nature. Delivering results seems more important than connecting with colleagues or as a team. Over time, the ability of the team to deliver sustainable results is reduced. The leader has created the perfect conditions for what they fear most—a drop-off in results and ultimately, failure.
Think about a leader who fears change. By sticking with the familiar, they deny themselves the chance to be exposed to new, interesting and innovative approaches. They resist change from the inside-out: themselves, their team or their organization. In doing so, they leave themselves vulnerable to change from the outside-in: technologies, competitors and innovation. The leader has created the perfect conditions for what they fear most—being changed.
The phenomenon of creating the conditions for the thing we fear most could be considered an extended version of the ironic process theory, which explains how our unconscious is drawn to a future we are consciously trying to avoid. If I tell you not to think about a white bear, for instance, you probably can’t get the image out of your mind even though the specific instructions are not to think about it. You are probably still thinking about it now!
However, this fascinating and universal pattern—of creating the conditions for the thing we fear most—is far more subtle, long-term and far-reaching. We all have our own version of it, and it can impact us in numerous, negative ways.
How can leaders avoid this?
By becoming more self-aware of the underlying areas that cause fear.
– Take a look at the above examples. Do you see any repeating themes from your own life?
By focusing on what you want rather than being influenced by what you don’t want.
– When we no longer serve the focus of our fears, we can render them irrelevant.
It takes a lot of work to identify patterns and to break age-old habits, but it is possible. With focused intention, dedication and a good guide, it may be less daunting than you think.
Jamie Ramsden is a certified executive leadership coach and founder of Adastra Consulting (www.adastraleadership.com). A former Chief Executive, Jamie has been coaching C-Suite and Senior executives around the world for over fifteen years.