What are you afraid of?

If your response is, “I’m not afraid of anything!” then you might need to pause and do some self-reflection. You’re likely either ignoring or avoiding your fears.

It’s okay, though. You’re not alone--lots of people wear false armor to try and protect themselves.

Including me.

Back to fear. The fact is, we’re all afraid. Even Navy SEALS are afraid. Even Tim Ferriss, he of 4 Hour Workweek fame, is afraid. Check out his epic post: "Productivity" Tricks for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me).

We’re afraid because being afraid is buried deep within the oldest part of our brains.

A brief history of fear

For roughly 200,000 years, fear served humans very well. In fact, a healthy dose of fear was the difference between life or death.

Your ancestors had fear. We know this because they survived to reproduce and passed healthy, constructive fear to their offspring. When there was a rustling in the bushes, your ancestors ran.

On the other hand, the people who didn’t have a healthy amount of fear got eaten by lions. They didn’t recognize the signs of potential danger. And this fatal flaw died with them.

Modern times

Fortunately, our world has evolved to the point where most of us don’t have to actively plan how we’re going to survive until tomorrow.

Granted, there are too many corners of the globe where people do face the daily threat of death. I’m not discounting that.

But, since I know you have access to the internet and enough discretionary time to read this blog, I’ll assume you do not live in one of those corners.

So for us, fear isn’t nearly as useful as it was to our ancestors.

In fact, fear is actually a great liability in our modern world. Our brains haven’t evolved to match the relatively recent phenomenon of safety.

Evolution can be slow, after all.Untitled design (16)

So, how is fear impacting the world around you? And how do you successfully navigate it?

Your staff is afraid

The members of your staff battle fear all day long. In fact, author Brene Brown makes the claim that fear is one of the leading factors of dysfunction in the workplace.

She outlines a hypothetical situation we all can relate to (I’ve adapted it a bit).

As she’s leaving a meeting, Brene says to a coworker, “Great meeting, huh! I think we got a lot accomplished!”

He responds with nothing more than a grimace and walks away.

Immediately, her fear takes over. She starts to tell herself, “Oh my gosh! Did I say something to offend Steve? Does he feel like I’m stepping on his toes? I’m not trying to take over the project, I’m just so excited about the direction we’re headed.”

Then she goes on, “You know what, if he doesn’t like me making things happen maybe he should work harder. I don’t need to slow down because he can’t keep up.”

And it can get worse. At lunch Brene might say to other coworkers--notably, people who aren’t Steve--“What’s Steve’s problem? He totally blew me off at the meeting this morning. If he doesn’t like me he should just say so. I’m not going to apologize for working hard.”

You can hear this conversation playing out, can’t you?

In reality, if Brene had just talked with Steve and explained that his funny look made her uncomfortable, she would find out the real story: he tweaked his ankle on a run earlier that morning. Now he’s in pain and was trying his best to walk without limping.

Because he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself.

In other words, Steve’s reaction had nothing to do with Brene. Her fear instinct launched her in a direction that wasn’t even accurate.

The need to belong

Why is it so easy to overreact? Well, back to our ancestors.

For millennia, our odds of survival were directly proportional to our ability to conform to the group. If we were thought to be outliers or wildcards, we risked being kicked out of our tribe. Because of the dangers all around, being exiled meant certain death.

So, we all have a need to be liked. To be respected. To be valued.

If we perceive someone to be disrespecting us or judging us unfairly, it cues a primal response. We either become combative or we go silent and remove ourselves from the situation as quickly as possible.

Fight or flight.

The need for approval

Your staff is also afraid of you, specifically.

Every prehistoric tribe had a leader, and a person’s standing within the tribe had much to do with what the leader thought. Were you an asset to the group’s survival? Were you strong? Were you resourceful?

Or were you a liability?

The same thing is going on in your office. Your team wants to know what you think of their work. Subconsciously, most people equate what you think of their work as what you think of them as people.

Great leaders I’ve observed use this to their advantage. They make recognition a foundation of the organization’s culture. Recognition equals approval.

Since your team members know you approve, their fear is minimized. Their energy ceases to be wasted on worry and can be channeled fully into productive uses.

Your board is afraid

Here’s something I never appreciated during my time as an executive: your board is afraid too.

Just like your employees, members of your board also feel a need to belong and a need for approval. But they have an additional fear component.


When someone joins your board, they have a lot on the line. They already have a reputation for being a respected, productive member of the community. Or at least they have the beginnings of such a reputation and are trying to buttress it through community service.

And they certainly don’t want to do anything to compromise that.

It has been said that there are two conversations simultaneously going on at your board meeting.

There’s the actual business being conducted.

And then there’s the effort to build social capital. Or maintain their current level, anyway.

What does this look like? Posturing to look smart and gain respect. Not asking questions to prevent looking stupid. Going along with the will of the group, even if you disagree.

How do you reduce this fear? Break a big board into smaller task teams. Have social events. Assign seating to encourage people to sit next to new peers each meeting. Formally assign board mentors.

In other words, give your board members opportunities to get to know each other better.

You are afraid

Let’s end where we started. With you.

Just like me, you are afraid. Every day.

We all are.

True, some people are better at managing their personal fears. They’ve learned to put fear in its place. To channel it for productive uses. To overcome it.

But it’s still there.

As I work with nonprofit leaders, I see fear most commonly in three areas:

  1. Avoiding confrontation. Is there a problem member of your staff who is sucking more energy from the organization than he or she is adding? Is there a board member who this applies to? Are you just “letting it ride” because you’ve got “more important things to deal with”?
  2. Avoiding new things. I intimately know the desire to maintain an aura of strength. Being a nonprofit executive is as much about perception as it is execution. That’s why trying new things is so hard. When you try something new, you’re going to be bad at it. You have to be willing to do something badly before you can do it expertly. But to truly grow, you have to keep pushing the boundaries.
  3. Yearning for greener pastures. FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is one of the most powerful fears of all. It can also be called envy or jealousy. I used to run a children’s museum and other directors would sometimes say, “that must be so easy; everyone loves kids!” However, the ED of the humane society hears, “everyone loves animals!” Or this: “giving hungry people food would be easy to raise money for.” Yes, some nonprofit executives are executing at a high level, but not because they have an “easy” mission.

How to manage your own fear

I searched the internet for “how to manage fear” and came up with 186 million results. This is a topic which has been explored in depth. One of my favorites is Inviting Mara to Tea.

The common theme of many of these articles is this: self-awareness defeats fear.

When you find yourself facing fear or anxiety:

  • Admit it, rather than ignore it.
  • Embrace it instead of fighting it. Pause, close your eyes, and fully feel your fear.
  • Ask yourself, “Is it really that bad? Am I making more of this than it really is?”
  • Push yourself headlong into the fear. Do that thing that you fear anyway.
  • Reflect on the outcome. THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT STEP. Performing a minute or two of honest reflection will spur a virtuous cycle in which overcoming fear will be easier next time.

In working with my own executive coach, we have identified that fear is my clearest signal of a high-payoff activity. Every time I have done that which I am most afraid of, the results have been extraordinary.

Short-term pain for long-term gain.

What do you think?

Where have you identified fear in your life? What have you done to address it? Any killer tips you can share?

I’d love to hear about it! Send me a message or hop over to the Nonprofit Wizards Facebook page!

Darren Macfee is the founder of the Nonprofit Wizards. He studies the habits and practices of wizards and then shares those with the world. He also strives to be a little better every day--as a husband, as a dad, and as a business professional.

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