I remember the day a colleague plodded into my team meeting and moaned “John Price has just been appointed CEO”. Our entire team became paralyzed with fear. We knew the leaders of our company’s three divisions, who always competed more than cooperated, had been vying for the open CEO spot. Price was from the “other” division, our rivals, and openly didn’t like our group. Now he was going to have power over us. This couldn’t be good. Our minds went wild with scenarios that had him replacing us with “his” people or re-allocating our funding to “his” division.
It was the worst time for this to be happening. We were implementing a huge upgrade to our computer systems, and if we didn’t get it right, Price would have lots of ammunition to replace us. But our focus was hijacked. Our team regularly used a stress management technique to transform negative emotions, and that usually worked, but this time the fear of uncertainty was too consuming. We needed special help.
We needed to desensitize ourselves to this fear. So we had a few sessions where we talked about what we feared the most, the worst-case scenario, and then we let ourselves really feel it. We were careful not to exaggerate, so when someone said “he could shut our entire division down”, we corrected that thinking and made sure we were realistic. But the most important thing we did was give ourselves permission to feel the fear intensely for about ten minutes. We conjured up the images of having our projects cancelled and our positions eliminated, letting ourselves experience the full force of the gut wrenching fear. Then when the ten minutes were up, we used our stress management technique to shift into positivity. Letting ourselves feel the fear helped it dissipate so we could move on and do our best work, and if fearful thoughts re-surfaced later, we joked that we’d save them for the next “fear session”.
If you’re skeptical of this, try it for yourself before you try it with your team. Make sure you first know how to self-manage your own emotions, so you can shift out of the fear. Then take your worst fear and allow yourself to feel it deeply. Pay attention to where you feel it in your body and lose the story line. For example, if your biggest fear is bankruptcy, feel the fear and negativity of it without the story line of how you got into the situation or how you’re going to fix it. Holding onto the story line will keep your cognitive mind engaged and not allow the full emotion to be felt. As you feel the fear intensely, you’ll likely notice that it begins to dissipate.
Dealing with fear in this manner can be much more effective than cognitively handling it. Cognitive behaviorists would say the trick to reducing fear is to change your thinking, replacing errors in thinking with more realistic thoughts. But the reality is there are very logical reasons to be afraid in modern business environments. There’s lots of uncertainty, so teams need techniques that go beyond cognitive reasoning. They need techniques that work directly at the emotional level. This particular technique is a form of fear extinction therapy that has been shown to help desensitize people to fear during psychotherapy.
As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.Share