How to Overcome the Two Fears Paralysing Your Team

Dan Stones
May 25, 2017 · 6 min read

The shocking part of it all is not how common these fears are, but how, after all this time, we are still so ill-equipped to deal with them.

It’s interesting to watch people and how they relate to their fears. Take heights or public speaking for example. Some people accept these fears like they would annoying relatives.

Why? Because they only show up from time to time, usually they don’t hang around too long and often they leave us without causing any real damage.

But I can think of two fears that show up in our work lives that are not so welcome. In fact, we hide them at all costs, keeping them locked away and out of sight (or so we think), from our colleagues, bosses and peers wherever possible.

So what are they? The first is a fear of being wrong. The second, a fear of looking or sounding incompetent.

These two fears interfere with team conversations, planning and progress more than any other factors I can think of. They are why nobody asks follow-up questions in meetings. They are behind the deafening silence that breaks out whenever a boss or supervisor asks for new ideas. They are the reason why you get that awkward stand-off when a volunteer is needed, or someone is asked to go first. And sadly, they are why many people struggle to ask for help, even when it’s needed most.

Of course, this should come as no surprise. We confront these fears in some form every day. We know them well; whether we are the supervisor asking the questions, or the team member desperate not to answer them. They affect all of us.

The shocking part of it all is not how common these fears are, but how, after all this time, we are still so ill-equipped to deal with them.

The truth is, we must do a much better job of handling our fears. If we don’t then making progress as a team will always be a struggle. Communication problems will hang around like a thick fog, and we will continue to underperform against our plans.

The good news is that with a little preparation and a couple of new strategies, we can start to turn things around in an instant.

“Is everyone clear?”
This question, along with, “does anyone have an idea about….” are two of the most fear-inducing questions a supervisor or manager can ask.

Mention either one and team members immediately hit the emergency stop button in their minds and start heading for the exits.

This is because being put on the spot for your best idea or revealing to your boss and everyone else that you don’t “get it”, risks revealing those two fears completely. So the thing most people do is shut up and say nothing. After all, no one else is going to call you out on it. Everyone is too busy hiding the same fears within themselves.

On the one hand, the strategy does seem to work. But there is a problem. The survival of the company (and people’s livelihoods), requires both questions be asked, and answered — regularly!

Teams must be clear; people have to understand the roles they are being asked to play and the goals they are pursuing. The business must grow, and therefore new ideas are required to continually improve productivity, efficiency and profitability.

So what can we do?
A more effective way to start these sorts of conversations is to make people feel comfortable and safe. Once team members know that their level of competency is no longer on trial, or being wrong is no longer a threat, then progress will be much more likely.

Let’s start with the question; “Is everyone clear?” or “Does that make sense?”, (I’m guilty of that one!). Both are horrible questions, in that they will trigger the fear of looking or sounding incompetent immediately.

Next time, try asking a little differently. Instead, use the phrase, “Have I explained that the right way?” or “Should I try explaining that again?”

Now if I have explained this clearly, (see what I just did there?), you will see immediately how the question of competency shifts from one party to the other. It went from being all about the people giving the answer (and whether they understood), toward the person asking the question (and if what they said was clear).

Try this for yourself next time you want to check for understanding. Experience has proven that team members not only ask more questions, but they are also much more willing to indicate when they don’t follow.

The second question, “does anyone have any ideas about….”, requires us to be a little more creative.

The first thing that pops into our heads when we have a new idea is usually a resounding, “that’s no good!”. We all have that feeling, and managers and supervisors all try and deal with it the same (lame) way. We try to put people at ease with a throwaway line about how there are no silly ideas, or that we’re just brainstorming and it’s no big deal. Ugh!

Next time you are in this situation, try using the “Why can’t we?” strategy instead.

How to use the “Why can’t we?” strategy

Step 1. Think about a problem at hand and come up with one or two ideas of your own. The trick is to make sure that the idea is worth considering, but ultimately too impractical to work. (e.g.,. the team lacks necessary funding, skills, tools, resources, work space, experience, etc…)

Step 2. One you have your ideas, frame the conversation with the team as follows;

“We need to come up with some new ideas to…(whatever it is). I was thinking, why can’t we….(share your first impractical idea)”.

Step 3. Encourage the team to respond with all the reasons why that idea won’t work.

At this point, it might seem like we are wasting time as you already know the idea won’t work, but something interesting will happen here. The team will be much quicker to enter into the conversation and will do so with much more enthusiasm.

Why? Because once again, the fear of being wrong or appearing incompetent is no longer an issue for them. In this case, the idea under the spotlight is not theirs, so they can’t be wrong and their competency is not under threat either.

Step 4. This is where the magic happens. It takes only one or two “impractical” ideas before someone inevitably pipes up with, “that won’t work, but you could try….”. One or more people also usually chime with a “why can’t we….” of their own. Once this happens, move on to step 5.

Note: If the initial answers for “why can’t we…..” dry up and no new ideas have been presented, then try repeating the process using the second idea from Step 1.

What’s really going here?
Our brains are funny things. As soon as we see why an idea won’t work, our brain can’t help itself and switches into problem-solving mode. We can’t help thinking about other things that just might work instead. Most teams make this switch without needing to be prompted, all that’s needed is one or two initial ideas to be shot down in flames before fresh ideas, and new possibilities start springing up all over the place!

Step 5. Pay close attention to what is said in step 4. Move the discussion forward by saying “That’s worth looking at!” or “You might be onto something there!” and then restate exactly what was said, beginning with “Why can’t we…?”

Personally, I love this strategy. I used it many times with great results in my earlier days as a software solutions architect and still rely on it when training and coaching teams today. Not only does it uncover great ideas that we know we can use, but the bonus is that the entire team is usually always 100% behind them.

The more we use these alternative strategies, the more we reduce the risk of fear hijacking our teams. Teams that can learn to master their fears are the ones who can outlast, outperform and outsmart any challenges and changes faced along the way.


If you’re intrested in looking for a simple way to involve your team in a discussion about improving performance, the need for change or planning for the future, then take a look at the facilitation toolkit I devleoped with Dr. Scott Simmerman over at The Square Wheels Project.

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