The Four Directions of Fear and how they lead to Difficult Behaviour at Work
Click the image above and then right-click it to “Save as…” or download your copy of the full handout.
Click the image above and then right-click it to “Save as…” or download your copy of the full handout.
I’ve often written here about our Inner Critics or Gremlins. These are the unconscious thought processes that act to keep us safe by sabotaging our attempts to change or to do something challenging or outside of our comfort zones.
Instead of keeping us safe, all this process really does is to maintain the status quo. And when things then change around us, as they inevitably do, instead of being ‘safe’, we’re left unprepared and disadvantaged. The very things our Inner Critics are fearful of tend to happen because of, not in spite of this process!
That’s why getting clear about and learning to live with the Inner Critic process is such an important part of leadership and personal growth.
But if you’re a leader, or anyone who really should be inspiring and developing the people around them, there’s another insidious aspect to this process. That’s when our Inner Critic is allowed to spill over and become our Outer Critic too.
I’m talking here about all the times when we’ve given voice to those small or large criticisms of the people around us. All the times we’ve said out loud (or just to ourselves), things like:
I’m sure there are many more examples.
Like the Inner Critic, the Outer Critic has a similarly important function. It’s intended to keep us from harm or to avoid a loss of some kind.
That’s why the times when we’re critical of others are usually when something that’s important to us is threatened by a shortcoming on their part. When their words or actions might lead to the loss of an opportunity or to some kind of ‘damage’ to a valued outcome, person or resource.
The great paradox of the Outer Critic is that just speaking our criticisms of others actually rarely even makes us feel better. And even less rarely does just speaking a criticism by itself actually make any difference to what’s happening.
I think our Outer Critic is a way of expressing our own fears, but without having to take any action that might put us out of our comfort zones. As my gran might have said: It’s all mouth, and no trousers.
One of the turning points in my own leadership journey was the realisation that you simply can’t complain people into changing. If you want something different from people, without having to do so every time, criticising just does not work.
So what should you do instead of criticising? Or if you’ve somehow go to a place where you realise you’re moaning, complaining about and criticising a LOT of people and things, how do you break out of that cycle?
In my experience, there are four important strategies for dealing with your over-active Outer Critic. All of these are crucial things for leaders to be doing anyway, so it’s no surprise that when you are doing these, it’s almost as if there’s no room, or maybe no need, for the Outer Critic to make itself known. Here they are, in descending order of positive impact:
1. Make sure you’re actively pursuing something positive that’s really important to you.
I can’t emphasise this one enough. Think back to the last time you were around someone on a mission. They might have told you about what was wrong with things, because ‘fixing’ something is an important part of some people’s missions, but I bet they won’t have moaned, complained or criticised. And when you’ve got something important to set your sights on, neither will you. There just isn’t time ☺
2. Either be prepared to get down in the arena and sort it out yourself, or walk on by.
There’s a great passage from a speech in 1910 by former US President Theodore Roosevelt, which is often referred to as “The Man in the Arena”. I’ve put the relevant extract in the picture at the top of this article, which you can download and save for yourself by clicking and then right-clicking. The message is essentially this: be the one taking action, or move on.
3. “Be the Change you Want to See”
This quote is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see”. It’s a really resourceful way of dealing with your Outer Critic. There are times for all of us when we genuinely don’t have the means, power or resources to step-in and deal with a particular issue, in a particular place and time. For those occasions when you can’t take action on that specific issue, but are convinced there’s a better way of doing things, then instead of moaning, complaining or criticizing, show people how it could be done, in the areas where you do have choice and control. Don’t criticize what is, inspire what could be.
4. Learn to make specific requests.
One of my very early coaching instructors, the late Laura Whitworth, gave me this gem of advice: “A complaint is just an unvoiced request”. This is a fantastic discipline to practise if you find that your Outer Critic has made an unwelcome appearance.
Take your criticism and search out the request that’s buried away inside it.
For example, instead of saying to your companion in a restaurant: “I hate how they’ve given us a table in the draft by the door”, call over your waiter and ask to be moved.
I can tell you from personal experience, that this ‘make a specific request’ approach sometimes even works with your teenaged children!
Maybe I should start with a confession.
By nature, I’m actually a fairly nervous, cautious and uncertain person. People who know me well get this, and they also know that:
People who don’t know me that well tend to assume that I’m extremely confident because I choose to trust my instincts, I don’t let anything stop me, and I’ll take appropriately-managed risks in pursuit of what’s important.
But this is all learned behaviour for me.
I’ve written before about imposter-syndrome, about dealing with your gremlins and about other related topics. Explore my blog and you’ll see that this is an important area for me. Not just because it’s something I need to consciously and consistently manage myself but because it comes up again and again in my clients. Often people who are attracted to work with me because of the perceived confidence they see.
Helping people to trust themselves is a core part of my purpose.
I’m especially interested in helping those people to whom others look for inspiration. Call them leaders if you want (they rarely tend to use that term themselves, even when it’s on a nameplate outside their door). It’s just that there’s something extra about the need and responsibility to take charge of your own self-doubts when other people are depending on you. If you don’t do this, people will unconsciously sense it. They’ll be puzzled by inconsistencies in your behaviour, they’ll hesitate when you ask them to do something stretching, and they’ll be less compelling in their interactions with your clients, customers and colleagues.
If I could conjure up some kind of holy-trinity of ways to take charge of your own self-doubt, it would be the three, deceptively simple things I’ve set-out for you below. Of course there are other techniques and tools and ways of dealing with what is a natural part of the human experience, but if you can get on board with these three, nothing need ever hold you back again.
Also, I’ve set these out fairly simply, without much exposition or argument because I really want them to stand out as self-evident truths.
What I’d most like is for you to test them out in real life.
Take a couple of weeks to monitor the level and kind of self-doubt you’re experiencing. Score your self-doubts on a 1-10 scale, keep a simple journal or log, and see if your experience changes once you adopt these ideas.
Rule One: Self-Doubt has an important purpose; it’s meant to keep you safe
Your experience of self-doubt is a perfectly natural part of being human that evolved with us for a very good reason. It’s meant to keep you safe. To stop you from doing stuff that might get you killed or injured; or to stop you being ostracised from the support network of your friends, colleagues and family.
You are not wrong, stupid, weak or inadequate for experiencing self-doubt.
Rule Two: Self-Doubt is largely physiological and your body is the best tool for dealing with it
There are brain chemicals that mediate the functioning of our guts, our perceptions of the resources available to us and our moods – all at the same time. Each element of our mind-body system interacts with the others. The food we’ve eaten (or not eaten), the amount of sleep we’ve had (or not had), the movement of our bodies, the amount of oxygen in our bloodstream. It’s all in a complex and largely self-regulating system. Because of this, very simple physical changes on our part can shift our self-doubts extremely quickly. A brisk walk. A glass of water. Lifting the head. Looking at the sky. A simple meal. A few deep and controlled breaths. A chat with a friend.
If you’re experiencing self-doubt and want it to change, always, always, always start by shifting something physically.
Rule Three: Self-Doubt doesn’t go away, so learn to walk alongside it
I’ve heard people say stuff like: “You have to kill your doubts”, “You have to get rid of them, once and for all”. But if you understand the origins of this process (see Rule One, above), you’ll know that killing your self-doubts or trying to permanently get rid of them is pointless and even counter-productive. I believe it’s much better to treat your self-doubts like a kind of nervous friend. Someone who really has your best interests at heart, but maybe doesn’t quite understand everything that you want to do or achieve in your life and work.
I sometimes imagine I’m out on a hike with this friend and they’ll often point out where we might get lost, or where we might slip over. And because of them I’ll see the bit of tricky navigation, or notice the rough ground when I might not have seen or noticed that before. Then we can choose to carry on with the hike if we want to. Just helping each other out as we go.
Serious question – Can you imagine what it would be like if there were three absolutely brilliant people, with different but complementary abilities, who you could call on for advice at any time and who’d know just what you needed to hear?
What difference could that make…
This is part of an exercise I use with people when they might be facing something challenging, unknown or scary. And they need to recapture or uncover some of their innate resourcefulness to deal with it.
Take a look at the diagram above;
and then follow these easy steps:
Remember the advice that each of your mentors had for you and know that you can access this inner resourcefulness of yours whenever you want to.
On that same scale of 1-10, how challenging or scary does that thing seem now?
One of the best aspects of my work is how much people value the chance to just talk about stuff.
There are several things you have to do before, during and afterwards to make it work well, but, the most important message I’d like leaders and managers to take from this post is really simple:
having a good-quality opportunity to talk and think out loud about the things that excite, concern and drive us is a fundamental requirement for operating well and feeling good about things at work
If you’ve set this up well, people will arrive ready and raring to go, with lists, narrative notes or a thought-cloud of things they want to share.
As a coach, it’s sometimes surprising how little I actually have to do on the outside – the important part for clients is for me to ‘witness’ whatever it is they are sharing. And I’m often consciously working at not doing anything else other than witness during these times. I’m also working at not letting my opinions and my own concerns and ambitions crowd-out my attention.
Things that seem to make it a good quality opportunity for people include:
The actual physical space you’re in, which needs to feel fairly protected or perhaps isolated I think. Although you can do a lot towards that just by the way you interact and negotiate together about what’s to be said and how they want you to be during the saying of it
2. The Coach or Leader’s Attitude
Holding an attitude in mind where (as the coach) you can connect really well with whatever it is that you find genuinely interesting, magnificent or even puzzling about this person. This I think is the key to good, deep listening and should be what drives your body language and verbal ‘tics’ (the uh-hu’s and hmm’s etc)
3. Offering People the Chance to Just Talk
On a conscious level, people don’t always seem to know that they want the chance to just talk. So it needs to be part of the negotiations about what they want from you as their coach and I think you may sometimes need to offer it explicitly: “You know, people sometimes just want me to listen to what’s been going around in their head and in their experiences. Would that be useful for you either now or sometime?”
4. Confidentiality and Managing the Agenda
There are also the real basics, like your commitments to confidentiality and how it works if you’re this person’s boss and therefore also have to juggle your own and the organisation’s agenda as well as listening to them. Make sure you talk about these right upfront, preferably before offering an ear to someone. But do it not in an idealistic way, but in a way that includes and is explicit about the reality – what are the limits to the confidentiality you can offer this person? What are the potential conflicts with your own agenda for what you want them to achieve and what the organisation wants?
For me, being able to give someone the chance to talk about (and hear for themselves) their ideas, concerns and ambitions is an incredibly privileged and humbling experience. Instinctively (and I have more learning to do about this), my sense is that the experience of talking about these things should be really ‘zen-like’ – unadorned and aspiring to true insight.