I am no psychologist so the thoughts that follow are simply those of my personal experience. I was moved to write this article as I recently had an insight into when a fear might be holding back an individual and their organisation. I use the word fear loosely to mean any form of worry or concern that you may have. I think we all use these terms interchangeably, we talk of “fearing that something may happen”, when we may actually mean we are simply worried or concerned. I think I have lived with fear my whole life and I think it has served me well most of the time, making me alive to and to consider the downsides of any action, but I can also see those instances where it has paralysed me from taking appropriate action. Recognising your fears, addressing them and their cause and channeling them is, I think, the key.

Perhaps I should start with the incident that prompted this article. A young lawyer was concerned about dealing with client feedback of the firm’s performance. The lawyer was fearful of doing anything that would negatively impact on the reputation of their partner or the firm. A perfectly reasonable concern. We agreed that they should not go looking for that feedback without first speaking to the partner, perhaps even allowing the partner to take the lead. However, what about the situation where the lawyer was given an unprompted hint of the client’s view from their opposite ranking number in the client – how should they react?

Do they freeze up and change the conversation or seek clarification?

We had a great discussion about what there was to fear in this situation and to what extent it could be managed or dealt with. We saw that the lawyer could ask lots of open questions, like: “what did you mean when you said..?, How did that make you or your superiors feel? What was the impact in the company? How do you think it should be done? What can we do to make our service better (either now or in the future?)”

We finally agreed that there should be no damage to the firm’s reputation by asking lots of open questions, hearing any criticism and undertaking to take it back to the firm. The firm and the partner would want to know that informal feedback. Sometimes that is the best feedback you can get. By recognising the fear of damaging the firm’s reputation and finding ways to mange and channel that fear, we found a useful channel of communication.

This incident highlights for me how leaders of organisations need to empower their people to be open to criticism and learn how to make the firm stronger through it.

When faced with a situation that causes me fear or concern I find myself asking: What is it I fear? Fear I think is a good thing that makes us alert to the dangers of any proposed course. It can make us really good at examining the downsides and addressing them. Doing the due diligence that will make us and the proposition stronger.

Equally if we take the enquiry too far it may lead to making no decision. Sometimes however, that may be the right course. Depending on your risk profile, if concerns you have cannot be adequately addressed, how do you proceed? Can you proceed? What risks will you be taking if you do? Do you know and understand the risks? If one of those risks comes to pass, what is the exit strategy? Often you will not get all the answers and yet proceeding may be the right thing to do. As a lawyer I may be guilty of focusing too much on the downside and missing the upside. Fortunately, I have always had entrepreneurial clients who could see the upside. or prepared to take the risks. That is where having different risk appetites in the team can make for a stronger decision, even if the process of getdting there is harder!

The key to me is to use your fear to identify the risks, evaluate them, find solutions to them or to the risk of proceeding. When in possession of as many facts and answers as you can get in the situation, make a decision, proceed or not proceed.

Don’t give in to fear, channel it.