How To Overcome Your Fear Of Looking Stupid At Work

How to Overcome Your Fear of Looking Stupid at Work

This post first appeared on Forbes.

How much is fear a driver for your behavior?

Fear and anxiety are pervasive themes in many of my coaching engagements. Whether a client is working on communication, prioritization, delegation or other leadership challenges, fear is often at the root of what makes change hard. There’s fear of failure, fear of missing out (FOMO), fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, fear of change. And here in Silicon Valley, where knowledge is king and imposter syndrome is rampant, there is a huge amount of fear of looking stupid

Fear is an emotional and physiological response to a perceived risk. It is a healthy response to physical danger and is often accompanied by evolutionarily useful behavior: fight or flight. But in everyday life, fear can be triggered by situations where we perceive a risk that is greater than the actual risk. That can lead to problems.

When fear is in the driver’s seat, it’s hard to be your best because you are all about self-protection. You may become defensive or combative, putting the pedal to the metal arguing to prove you’re right (and make the other guy wrong). This makes building trusting relationships and collaborating tricky. Or fear of looking stupid can be like a timid granny behind the wheel. You hedge. You withhold your point of view and keep your ideas close to the chest until you are sure your position is airtight. Or maybe fear makes you put the brakes on and stay silent, nodding in agreement despite having an objection. You may refrain from asking a question because you think you should know the answer. But “playing it safe” in this way is actually very risky because it stifles your ability to create and learn. 

Curiosity is a powerful antidote to fear. When your curiosity is driving, you have a lot more options. In fear, most of our energy goes to controlling and protecting. It’s exhausting. In curiosity, creative energy flourishes, and you try new things, share ideas and learn.

Here are a few ways put curiosity in the driver’s seat:

1. Focus on learning. Instead of trying to prove that you are smart or right, focus on what you can learn. If you practice a growth mindset, you can invite others to help you improve your ideas and develop insights. Experiment and see what happens.

2. Flip the narrative. Fear’s obsession is what could go wrong. Instead, envision what could go right. Explore the variety of positive outcomes and benefits, including your own learning. What could you do to generate a positive outcome?

3. Get over yourself. We are always at the center of our own fearful narratives and we assume that what happens is a reflection on us. But in reality, you are a part of a complex system. Instead of making each interaction into a judgment about you, consider how you can contribute to a beneficial shared outcome. 

4. Step back. Take a moment to consider the bigger picture and get curious about your beliefs and assumptions. What are they based on? Are they true? How is the current situation an opportunity to test your assumptions?

5. Cultivate wonder. In a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), it can be hard to predict outcomes or know you are making the “right” decision. This could be scary, but it could also be the source of energy and wonder. Bring a spirit of experimentation, openness and play to possibility. Shift from “I must control the outcome” to “I wonder what will happen.”

The shift from fear to curiosity won’t happen overnight, but you can begin to practice right away. Start simple. On your commute home, cultivate wonder. Notice the scenery, observe people, open a window and feel the air. You might focus on learning and approach lunch with your co-worker or mother-in-law curious about what you might learn from them. Or think about an event that you are not looking forward to and flip the narrative and name what good things might happen or step back and consider your assumptions. Then move onto low stakes situations at work where you can sense that you may be triggered and experiment with one of the approaches above. Over time, as you develop your curiosity muscle, you may even be able to leave fear in the dust, or at least leave it in the back seat.

To quote the 20th Century philosopher Alan Watts, “By replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility. We can let fear rule our lives or we can become childlike with curiosity, pushing our boundaries, leaping out of our comfort zones, and accepting what life puts before us.”