Here’s a topic not often discussed in the offices of the majority of leaders: FEAR. We’ll talk about risk, or problem’s, or setbacks. But never fear. Why is that? Probably because the word “fear” comes with a lot of baggage. Fear isn’t something that’s talked about openly, ever. It’s a sign of weakness or lack of capability.
The truth is, fear is present whether we want to admit openly or not. Leaders have fears, team members have fear, even senior leaders and clients have fears. Fear of failure, fear of looking bad, fear of missing something important that sets a project on its rear…the list goes on. Some of these fears are project or mission related, some are personal.
Regardless, fear still exists. Am I wrong?
Here’s an example:
An engineering team is under stress to finish a complex effort within what it believes is an unrealistic timeframe. The complexity of the effort is such that there’s valid concern – a fear – that unforeseen site conditions will sabotage the team’s best efforts to deliver the client’s project to specification on time. A blown delivery date is bad and everyone on the team, the project team leader included, wants to avoid this calamity at all costs. The team leader has a personal fear of looking bad. Their annual appraisal is right around the corner and their supervisor has hinted at a raise and a promotion to a different division in the company with increased responsibility. Plus, he mentioned that the results from the project the team leader is now working will play a role in the final decision on the promotion.
This engineer is not only fearful of looking bad, but losing a raise and his dream job. Do you think that’s going to affect his performance? You bet.
Paradoxical Intention: Unleashing Exactly What You Fear
A study on fear conducted by sociology professor Dr. Christopher Bader of Chapman University found that when we’re afraid of something it can sometimes lead us to make choices that will actually cause the thing that we are avoiding. This holds even if the fear is irrational.
We can also look to the work done by psychologist Viktor Frankl who found his patients often brought into existence the very things they wished to avoid in their lives, something he termed “anticipatory anxiety”.
Applying this to the engineering project example above: the fears of the project leader may have a higher probability of occurring.
Now knowing about anticipatory anxiety and the paradox of failure acceleration, you can drive positive outcomes in your engineering career, and effectively lead engineering teams by following these guidelines:
1. Identify and discuss risks early. Brainstorm potential project risks, and the fears each member harbors about the project, with your engineering team early on. This takes serious levels of trust between all of the members. When the trust-level exists, putting all of the fear cards on the table will be worth its weight in emotional gold. Knowing what risks and fears exist, both about the project and for the individuals themselves, allows the entire engineering team to develop mitigation actions and to help each other. When you know someone has your back, you’re better able to succeed in any situation.
2. Be confident. You and each of your team members have experiences where challenging projects were fulfilled successfully. Visualize them, celebrate them, and take inspiration from them so you can find the knowledge, initiative, and creativity to overcome the challenges you’ll experience in the new project.
If you’re embarking on your first engineering project as a leader, or it’s the first engineering project the team is working on together, spend time at the beginning of your collaboration highlighting one or two examples each person has of success on a project and why they think that project was successful. We have all been successful in challenging situations, but we tend to forget it each time we begin anew.
3. Lead through the risk. In any project, it’s important to identify what each risk is, what the range of impacts might be to the project from the risk, and what can be done to mitigate the risk.
Simply managing risk isn’t adequate. You must lead through the risk. Get in front of risk by purposefully visualizing that the risk has occurred. Now visualize how you and your team will respond to the problems.
Military units do this before they go into a challenging situation by performing a Rehearsal of Concept (ROC) drill. Key leaders will go through each step of not only the plan, but each and every potential risk and how the unit will respond. Doing this gives the leader, and the team, a chance to test the risk response and game play how problems will be handled.
Personal fears and fear of project execution are not issues to simply brush aside. By addressing your fears, and the fears of your team members, early in a project, you arm yourself with the foresight of the silent risks that might lead to project failure. This allows you and your team to address the internal risks along with the external risks and greatly increase the probability of project success.
“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” – Winston Churchill
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share on actions that might help you lead your engineering team despite fear.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below.
To your success,
Christian Knutson, PE, PMP
Engineering Management Institute