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Leveraging fear for better career results: or using it as a fulcrum to lift the heavy objects and do the work

Co-author citation, Parker Johnston

The only thing to fear is?

Fear. It’s part of the human condition. Often times, it stops us from realizing our goals or taking the doorway to a new path upon which we would ultimately evolve and change, but never do, because of, yup, fear. Yet, one has to admit, fear is also a useful force that can help inform of dangerous situations based upon previous lessons learned after having explored new options and possibilities. This post, and subsequent talk, aims to paint a picture of how fear can be used as a fulcrum. Or rather, a tool to do heavier lifting than we can do ourselves alone.

A fulcrum is defined as something that plays a central or essential role in an activity, event, or situation. If you think of fear as the fulcrum upon which you place the lever in order to lift a heavy object, it just becomes a matter of where you place the balancing point for maximum lift with minimal effort, however. The hard part is repurposing that feeling from a negative force that stops movement and into one that promotes it.

Some common scenarios where we encounter fear in our professional lives include dealing with things like imposter syndrome, see Corkindale under references, the ever-changing economic landscape, working on keeping a balance between experience and change, building self-knowledge and empathy in order to face the kinds of fears that stop us from embracing change, risk and growth. While these are just a few broad topic areas, it should help to put a lens on our various paths regardless of our differences while making fear your ally instead of an enemy.

Aspects of fear

In Patrick Lencioni’s book “Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding The Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty” he outlines three main pillars where fear hurts us in consulting. The core principle here is that of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with our clients. It does not stop there; however, he goes on to define specific aspects where we fail.

In our lives, we have all struggled with our egos. It holds us back telling us we aren’t enough or that we are, in fact, imposters. This can, and usually does lead to shame which cripples not only ourselves but our personal and business relationships as well.

The book goes on to explain how we should do things like consulting instead of selling. That’s part honesty as well. Being upfront and respectful in how you deal with a client instead of angling for other tracks at every comer. Do the work you are there to do and be totally open about it. Tell the kind truth is another tool he proffers which explains the practice of delivering difficult messages in an empathetic way. Telling someone they should not do something or that mistakes were made in previous or existing designs are never easy conversations. But if you do it while letting the client know where you are coming from your chances of success improve dramatically.

Take a bullet for the client is another practice that sets us apart from our competition and can foster trust like nothing else. How I like to think of this is tackling the tough challenges on a project and making yourself the target while enabling your team to achieve the client’s goals. This happened to me recently at a client where I was noticing some significant frenzy in the development pipeline with constantly shifting requirements as they were not defined even upon sign off. I made suggestions to adopt some Scrum practices, namely tracking, estimating and letting developers take on work instead of being assigned tasks. Part of the client team embraced it. The other part found it threatening and thus marked me as an agent of change. The thing is, I was not afraid to deal with the elephant in the room or to take the blame when my initial push failed. While it was uncomfortable, the project team was able to come in behind and implement more Scrum ideas that the client, on all sides, embraced.

Organizational constructs, or silos, are something you will always face when working with established businesses. It helps when not seeing the organization but, instead, seeing the people in it. You run into rivalries, politics, dysfunction, and stagnation in a lot of cases. In fact, while comfort sounds nice, it can be a barrier to growth. It’s something that lulls us into the relative safety of a repeated pattern, year after year. Maybe we like the people we work with and they are our friends. Perhaps we are just making bank and letting our skills stagnate. Whatever the reason, the antidote is to change things up frequently and often all while making this fear of change more of a marker for where to go next. A compass if you will.

Lastly, fear of being embarrassed is called out in “Getting Naked,” shedding fear of not being right, asking dumb questions and learning from, and owning, our mistakes take us a long way toward being the kind of person that others will trust and rely upon. These all relate to how afraid our egos really are. But, when we resolve those tensions and focus instead upon more productive goals, we can see past those blinders and let down our guard.

Stories from the road

These are a collection of personal experiences I have had to face along the course of my career which I want to share to further explain how fear has both been an enemy and a friend in my past.

Riding the fence: or choosing to stay in a situation that you know is not right for you.
I once worked with a guy who was derided in our department for being a sort of Bad Luck Schleprock. I honestly felt bad for him. He hated his job but desperately wanted others to he was capable of more. On top of that, his friend ran the department and was the godfather of his kids. That was a tenuous relationship as well as the guy never really improved but he was protected in flight by that relationship… even if it was oddly hostile. If he had only been less afraid of change, he would have been able to overcome not just a bad relationship but opened many other doors that would have provided opportunities for growth and change.

Choosing stagnation versus growth. Now, to be fair to my old friend Schleprock, I was in a similar boat. I worked at a company for 15 years. I was comfortable. Doing the same thing for a pretty long-time period. Things were, well, good enough. That all changed when I got a chance to interview on the West Coast for a startup. It was looking good job-wise but there would have been no way I could afford to take the offer. So, I turned tail and headed home. On the way though I talked to a guy who told me to change things up every 3 years. Which, in fact, I did, the same year of my trip to SFO. Had I not at least faced my fear of change, I probably would not be here today doing work in cloud and other technologies.

Shouldering everything on your own even though it’s breaking you, the fear of opening-up to your peers. Back in the shop where I worked for 15 years, I was put in charge of a project. It went disastrously wrong. I was in charge of a small team that built a composite application on a popular software platform. It was all about paying out bonuses to employees. Well, the thing blew up and I took the fall for it. To this day, I remember having to walk out of the building and go for a walk where I just lost it emotionally. That was hardcore panic fear. And I shouldered all of it alone. I don’t know how I got through it but that was a low point in my life. Today? Yeah, I still struggle with various issues now and again, but I no longer do it alone. That’s where I let go of some ego which removed the fear and allowed me to adopt more vulnerability and strength with others.

Of change and things that are new. Technology is constantly changing. When I was the architect for a division of a very large company in the recent past, I had to do some hearts and minds persuading. Not quite Jedi mind tricks but not too far off either. When you have a team that is used to a given tech stack, but the company views it as a risk the job becomes persuading them off it. The thing I saw mostly was that, with JavaScript frameworks versus compiled code, the tech lead was afraid of what the coding patterns looked like versus how his team had done things in the past. We were arguing between REACT JS and a Java-based paradigm. In the end, though, we worked together as a team to achieve our goal. The essential thing here was that every member of the group of people came to rely upon one another to achieve the understanding of how to code in this new technology and freely supported one another from not just a technical perspective but an interpersonal one as well. Everyone supported, listened and had empathy for each other. It was one of those more beautiful moments to watch.

Tim Trad from Unsplash

Clients and job-related situations where fear holds one back from sharing our own opinions even when we are getting paid to do so: politics. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve been faced with long-standing tensions between departments inside of an organization. Hell, I remember working in a restaurant where there were two “camps” in the kitchen which amounted to a microcosm of organizational politics. This is a good time to mention that none of the principals in this post are solely a technology industry thing. All of the concepts and situations are things that anyone can encounter and or use in whatever line of work you choose. That said, yeah, silos, constructs, and politics. These are all a fact of life. Like fear though, they don’t have to be 100% negative or blocking agents. The job at hand is to use your skills. Listen to hear. Practice empathy. Be Switzerland where you can. Do the job you were hired to do and always rescope to that.

Knowing that leadership, your client and your teammates are probably looking to you for not just high-quality work, but support and understanding can go a long way toward maybe not knocking down silos but making them easier to pass through is the thing. Remember, we don’t have to change everything within the scope of a project, just plant some seeds and see what comes of it later. Much like another project team I worked with where there was a significant fear of change on the side of the people we were working with. However, by the time I was set to leave, I saw two members of my crew successfully open a window to another section of the organization who were doing things in a much better way. That kind of thing is the lightning strike event that causes internal organizational change to happen organically. It’s best when the subunit adopts it on its own, but it also becomes a possibility when you foster trust without fear in the first place.

Again, do your best for your client, lay your cards on the table, just be yourself and do the work.

Reclaiming your life after a near-death experience. I’ve spoken about this now so many times and yet, to this day, it’s been one of my own most difficult battles with fear. I had a heart attack 5 years ago this April. After you have one, you kind of keep track of the date like a birthday. There’s a thing that a lot of survivors, well about a third of us, experience loosely termed “cardiac anxiety.” Basically anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Anything can trigger it and send you down a spiral. At this point in my life though I had already begun to open up to people and adopt changes internally, so I had some skills even early on to swing back out of it. The biggest thing I did was to join people on the running trails outdoors. I started running races all the way up to a 20-miler, a marathon is still on my list, but I’ll get there when I get there. This ultimately led to backcountry backpack hiking with friends. As a result of my opening up while doing something physical was that it allowed me to stop focusing on the fear and turn my attention to the experience I was sharing with others.

Hansons Point Red River Gorge Kentucky

Opening up to your peers & building trust. Remember that time back when my project had exploded? Well, the difference today is that I now have more open dialogues about my feelings and observations not just with my boss but with my colleagues and clients. It has helped me to resist the temptation to go it alone and shoulder everything myself. Letting myself trust others has been a key thing in both my personal and professional life.

Turning Fear into a Positive Force

Another book that has helped frame this conversation is called “Braving the Wilderness” by Brené Brown.

She states things like “true belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are.” This in relation to technologies and schools of thought that make it easy for us to stay inside our own ideological bubbles while growing more and more disconnected. She goes on to identify tools like having the courage to take off our “armor” as she calls it. To get real with people and, as Lencioni argues, get vulnerable without fear.

Tools that you can use in your professional life include things like the following:
• Learning to trust your peers
• Earning the trust of your peers
• Listening to each other; or listen to hear not to speak
• Practice empathy in the workplace
• Sharing the right kind of personal information; hint, it’s all the right kind
• Getting comfortable with being vulnerable

Austin Chan from Unsplash


By now we’ve taken a closer look at one of the fundamental forces in our lives. On an evolutionary angle, fear is a good thing. Fear keeps us alive. It informs and alerts us to be mindful. But it also has a way of hijacking our better selves. It can even isolate and cut us off from one another in ways that harm more than helps. The thing to remember is that fear is a choice. We can decide to not pursue that thing we’ve been dreaming about, or we can choose to be informed of the risks, mitigate those in advance where we can proceed down new paths while fostering our own evolution and enrichment.

With the tools we’ve discussed, we can also understand that we are not alone and that everyone struggles with his/her emotions, shame, fear, self-worth, and ego. It’s when we find allies, open up, trust and share that we give each other the gift of empathy.

Life with fear is not negative, it can be an impetus for change. We must put ourselves in situations where we feel support and encouragement. We also need to acknowledge this in others and return the same favors collectively. Every one of us deserves to be happy and fulfilled. Or at least the opportunity to develop and grow.


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One Comment

  1. Ryan Jacobs Ryan Jacobs

    Great stuff as always — I really appreciate your willingness to share.

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