The people I have the privilege of working with are determined to excel at what they do. They want to deliver a positive contribution through their work and make a difference to others. They achieve this by continually working on the parts of themselves that keep them stuck, stepping up to more challenging projects that push them out of their comfort zone and into those opportunities that will help them break through to the next level. However, in challenging themselves, many leaders and aspiring leaders need to work through the fear and self-doubt that threaten to sabotage their objectives. In this article, I share my experience working through these challenges and reveal the most effective ways to overcome them.
One particular client I was supporting as a leadership coach had recently landed the dream job she had been seeking. It was a job that promised exciting projects, a great team and flexibility, ticking all her boxes. She had only been in the position for a few months when we started working together. It was clear to me from the start that she was passionate about what she was working on and eager to do a great job and deliver over and above expectations. However, what had seemed to be the dream role during the first few months was no longer proving to be sustainable for my client. She was clear that the lack of sustainability wasn’t specific to the role; her insecurities and doubts were taking away the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment.
My 40-year old client, a qualified professional and mother of three, felt she couldn’t hit the mark at work no matter what she did. The worry was constant and overpowering. She kept reading into things colleagues said, comparing herself to others in the team and hiding what she was up to with her projects until she felt they were good enough to share with others and gauge their impression. She was so afraid to hear she wasn’t doing a good job that she opted to keep going and push through by taking on an increased workload and more significant challenges. She kept listening to her own inner dialogue, telling herself that it was “better not to ask” her managers what they thought of her and whether the gaps she believed existed between her skills and the role she was performing were real.
It wasn’t long before the issues at work began to negatively impact other aspects of my client’s life. For example, she was compromising time with her children, relying on their grandparents to take over their care. As for time for herself, that was at the bottom of the list. She even started to develop habits she intentionally avoided in the past as a coping mechanism. Realising things were spiralling out of control both at home and at work, she made the first courageous step towards becoming more effective. Seeking support from the right coach led her to me.
Our first step in working together was to build my client’s confidence and raise her awareness of what was really going on. She started noticing all the excuses and justifications she was making that prevented her from being open with her colleagues and managers. She realised she wanted to keep pretending she had it all together at work. It took courage to admit that the fear of hearing she wasn’t doing a great job was greater and more overpowering than the possibility of learning she was doing a great job, the one thing she wanted to hear more than anything.
Should we really “face our fears and do it anyway”?
My client’s experience is not uncommon. Many leaders, and those who aspire to lead, go above and beyond to deliver without taking the time to understand the expectations and ask for feedback for fear of hearing the doubts they carry about themselves from someone else. I observe this in some of the more incidental aspects that arise during my coaching conversations. Examples include not checking on deadlines, not partnering with stakeholders to agree on expectations, not looping back to confirm if the finished job hit the mark, not checking in with the team and asking what they need or where they want to step up and take on more responsibilities, and so on.
So what is driving the show in the above examples? The answer is fear, disguised as wanting to be one’s best. Fear gets in the way of checking in with others and learning how things actually are. A typical response to this issue would be “face your fears and do it anyway”, a well-worn cliche we often hear quoted by motivational speakers in the industry. But in my experience as an ontological leadership coach working with the Being Framework™, it takes more than that. For someone to take action when fear, one of four Moods in the framework, is present, they need to shift their relationship with fear so that they can bring in the vulnerability (another Mood) and then the courage (a Primary Way of Being) to have the necessary conversations. As Dr. Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is a prerequisite to courage”.
Returning to my 40-year old female client, after working with her for three months, one of the discoveries we made was that the objective wasn't just about her feeling more confident; it was about her being more vulnerable and courageous to ask the right questions. I supported her to discover that she needed to ask questions that would help her clarify expectations. That way, she would know when to go the extra mile and when she could end her day and go home with the satisfaction of knowing she had been effective and put in a good day’s work.
Some of the key aspects of our work together were:
- Understanding where the self-doubt was coming from. There were phrases on repeat in my client’s head that told her she wasn’t good enough to the point where it became her dominant narrative.
- Becoming clear on the cost of not knowing. Once she understood the cost a lack of awareness was having on her life, my client worked on transforming her relationship with courage so she could ask the right questions and be clear on expectations before, during and after every new project.
- Asking for regular feedback sessions with her boss so she could clearly articulate her professional development goals and seek feedback on her progress. This meant being aware of the gaps in her performance and what it would take to close them.
- Setting the intention to be present whenever she was with her children. This was about changing the focus from quantity to quality time.
A few months after putting the above into practice, my client was offered a permanent senior leadership position with the company during a period of major change. It was what she had been hoping for all along but had been too afraid to request. However, the most significant win for my client was that she wasn't surprised when she was offered the role. Her regular feedback sessions with her boss and team had made it clear to her that she was hitting the mark, giving her a renewed sense of confidence. She was doing the work she loved, working on projects that made a difference and feeling like she owned the role and the results she produced. She had purpose, impact, job security and more money, giving her the confidence to confront and powerfully address other areas in her life that she knew she needed to get on track but had been putting off.
If insecurities and doubts are taking away the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment in your professional life, ask yourself if you should keep pushing through and suffer the consequences. Or is it time to observe and pay attention to the fear and self-doubt and build up your courage and vulnerability to have more powerful conversations that enable you to check in with reality and assertively create the change you want to see?