Skip to Content

LEADERSHIP: Fear vs. Opportunity

Happy New Year!  The time between Christmas and New Year’s when, for the most part, we shut down the office, affords me more time to read and think about changes I want to make going forward.  This year particularly has been one with some real insights for me that I’d like to share with you.

When we train on conflict resolution, one of the critical insights we try to convey is how we have a choice to see the conflict as a threat or an opportunity.  Always before I limited this insight to tense situations where people were experiencing disagreement.  But in truth, all of life can be simplified to these two paradigms as well.  Is my paradigm, or mental model in life, focused on fear (seeing everything as a threat) or opportunity?  Do I see scarcity or plenty in a situation or a relationship?  Let’s look at each from a work life perspective.

If our focus or mental model is one of fear, then we are always on guard, slightly suspicious of other people’s motives, holding back what we really think or how we really feel because of how others might react.  It starts out slowly at first with the supervisor who reminds us not to speak up in meetings because we’re too young, or the performance review that really wasn’t fair or accurate, but ended up in our personnel file anyway.  We harden ourselves and begin to see the workplace as fearful.  We add to that the emotional pain we actually do experience sometimes on the job, especially now when people lose their jobs even from no fault of their own.


Years ago, I was offered a promotion but told to keep it quiet until they had decided what to do with my boss.  They still wanted me to prepare the budget for the coming year and meet behind closed doors to discuss the transition, but not say anything to others.  I was obedient – one month, two months, and three months.  I finally went to the President to ask what was happening and why it was taking so long to make a decision.  His reply, “I know.  It’s an abomination!”  At the time, I didn’t even know what the word abomination meant, but I did know that working behind someone’s back was not for me. 


I sometimes think in work we experience a number of “indirect hits” – circumstances that we see happening to others that aren’t quite right.  We know it, but we don’t say anything.  Then, on occasion, we take a “direct hit.”  For some it’s the time to say, “I can’t work here anymore.”  For others, they take the hit and some small part of them is then shut off, fearful and no longer available.


What would the workplace look like if we viewed it from an opportunity mindset?  One of my worst flaws is to read into people’s behavior and think I can determine their motive. For example, I might see the bath towel on the floor after my husband is done with the shower and immediately think he was too lazy to pick it up.  At work, I might think that someone else’s new idea is really a commentary on how they didn’t like my idea.  We climb this mental “ladder of inference” (Chris Argyius) so quickly and even feel proud that we’ve got the whole situation all figured out.  Well, nonsense – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been wrong.

If I can see relationships at work from a place of plenty, the motive I would ascribe to someone’s behavior would start out positive (rather than negative as it always does).  I would recognize that even their negative behavior is simply because of some fear that is conditioning their response.  In other words, I would give them the benefit of the doubt.  I would frame the situation differently.  Even if the news is bad news, I could step back and say – what’s the opportunity for me here?  My whole response to the circumstance would be different.  I wouldn’t need to ‘cc’ everyone on emails, use my voice mail to screen calls or email to communicate with the person next door to me.  It would look different.




 Last week, I saw an interview on CNN’s Parker/Spitzer program with Leo Gerard, the President of the United Steelworkers International telling about how the union had worked with all the US companies that produce steel to make them more competitive.  It resulted in company mergers, redesigned health care plans for retirees, gain sharing and most importantly, a collaborative relationship between the union and management that has made US steel again competitive in the global marketplace.  At some point, someone in that paradigm had to begin thinking differently for this change to take place.  By shifting from fear to opportunity, a whole new set of options came forth. 


So my mission – and I invite you to join in as well – during 2011 is to think of each day as a piece of paper with a line down the middle.  On the top of the left side is the word FEAR, and on the top of the right side is the word OPPORTUNITY.    Throughout the day, in every interaction, decision or plan, I’m going to mentally place it on one side or the other – whichever I have done.  Hopefully, over time, I’ll be able to move my thinking to the right side – the side of opportunity.  “Research tells us that fully 92% of our worries either will never come to pass or can’t be changed,” states Kurt W. Mortensen in the book, Persuasion IQ. I’m tired of living with fear, anxiety, and worry about what will or won’t happen.  I’m ready for something new…even at my age!

If you’d like to join in, drop me a note and we’ll see how we can encourage each other throughout the year.
           Be on the Offense: Why We Need Catalysts in Our Lives



Who We Are

An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

Our Twitter Feed