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How Fear Can Be a Performance-enhancing Drug

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Alamy
Alamy

Fear works. There. I said it. I got all huffy in a recent post about not creating a fear-inducing environment. But the truth is that fear kicks ass. It gets people scurrying around. If you hate complacency, there's nothing like a little panic to relax you. And yes, I intend that to be ironic.

But...

There's good fear and bad fear. Let's imagine you're an actor. For fun, let's put you on Broadway or in London's West End. You have a lead part in a show. I say that you ought to be afraid. But there are at least two kinds of fear you could be feeling. One is useful. The other? Not so much...

  1. Fear 1: The director has taken you aside before tonight's show to tell you that the producer is taking a long look at the show. Audience sizes aren't what she had expected. The buzz isn't buzzy enough. "You'd better do your best tonight. If you don't kill it, believe me there are hundreds of hungry young actors outside my door waiting for a big break."
    • How do you feel?
    • How will you perform?
    • Most important, where will your eyes and your mind be focused?
  2. Fear 2: You and the director have talked for weeks about the importance of this show's message. You deeply believe in this show's power to open people up to new ways of viewing the world -- to do the sneaky work of art and drama, bypassing rational defenses to plant positively subversive ideas in the minds and hearts of viewers. You know that your fellow cast members feel the same way. You're afraid of letting them down. You deeply want to create something with your colleagues that will be a moment for the audience. You know this is your chance.
    • How do you feel?
    • How will you perform?
    • Most important, where will your eyes and your mind be focused?

Here's my guess: In scenario one, you'll be freaked out. Your eyes will be on the director and the producer. You'll know that they aren't for you. You'll know that because it's true. They're for themselves and if you don't work out, they'll toss you to the side and find someone who will serve their purposes. So your eyes will really be on yourself and on your own survival. You may perform, but you'll be tight. You'll gut it out.

In scenario two, you'll be scared but it will be a focused fear. Your eyes will be on the audience and your colleagues, drawing them into the story. It won't take long for you to see that both are for you. Your colleagues want to create a moment too. And the audience has come to the theater to experience such a moment. You're all working together now, digging for something important and fresh -- or deeply familiar but partially forgotten. You'll know that they are for you. You'll know because it's true. You'll perform because you have an edge.

Fear itself isn't bad. It's good to create an atmosphere in your organization where people have that edge. How do you do it?

  • Create Shared, BIG Purpose -- Be really clear about why what you're doing matters to the world. Don't bore us with, "We deliver really great solutions to our customers, predictable returns to shareholders, and attractive careers to our employees." Please. Revolutionize health care. Help people use technology to shower love on loved ones. Make me want to join your crusade.
  • Make Purpose Real -- Talking about purpose is one thing. Doing it is something else. When you say you do big things, you're making a promise. Show your team by the way you lead each day, week, and month that you're not kidding. Make the choices that get people's attention. Which choices? Hint: Start with hirings, budgets, recognition, and promotions.
  • Build a Talented, Cohesive Team- Some things do carry over from high school. Peer pressure works. When you work with a group of high achievers you admire and who are counting on you, you fear letting them down. That camaraderie doesn't come accidentally. Leaders foster it by the people they select, the dreams they cast, and the rituals they build into their culture.

So ask yourself a few questions as we move through 2013:

  • What kind of fear do we have around our organization?
  • How big is our purpose?
  • How much does our team believe that we're sold out to that purpose?
  • Is positive peer pressure encouraging our people to do their best work?

Make 2013 the year of fear. I dare you.