What are we so afraid of? Each of us has a certain fear of the unknown, of stepping out of our "comfort zone." Yet nothing great has ever been achieved without taking that step. If you wait until you are comfortable with a challenging task, or until you believe that you can do it with no possibility of failure, it can never be great. Someone braver will do it and steal your thunder. I see women step out of their comfort zone all the time in other areas of their lives. None of us knows exactly what to expect when we have a baby, yet millions of women eagerly take on this unknown responsibility. The same woman who would be terrified to be a stockbroker enthusiastically leads a group of children and adults for a week of vacation Bible school, with no training or knowledge about how the program has been run in the past.

Susan has been a saleswoman for the past fifteen years. When she explains what she does for a living, women often ask, "You don't go out and see people, do you?" No man has ever asked her this question. Susan considers her job to be a lot of things, and scary is one of them. However, she refuses to let a little fear stand between her and a thrilling job with an excellent income.

Men, of course, experience fear of the unknown. Perhaps because working and supporting a family are so well ingrained as part of the male sense of responsibility, men often reach out beyond their comfort zone in the workplace, while women tend to do it at home and in volunteer work.

Larry and I were close friends. He was a banker, and he wanted to promote Jackie, a female teller, to loan officer, believing she would be an asset to the company in that position. When he approached her, he expected her to welcome the opportunity for advancement. Instead, Jackie spent weeks telling Larry of her insecurities. Could she handle it? Would she like it? What if she made a mistake? He discussed this with me, and I told him that women are unaware of the need to project confidence when they do not feel it. I explained that women want to feel completely competent in a job before they begin it. Taking my advice, he continued to encourage her. Without my coaching, Larry would have assumed that Jackie was not interested, and he would have looked elsewhere. Jackie would have been convinced it was because she was unqualified.

The men around you probably don't have a woman coaching them about their female employees. They will most likely interpret your expressions of fear and doubt as lack of interest or lack of "competence." It is all right to feel afraid about your ability to do a job, but it is usually counterproductive to express that feeling in the workplace.

How many of us don't want to interview for a job because we don't know all the right answers? How many of us don't apply for a lucrative position because we don't know every single thing that will be asked of us? It is high time to risk making some mistakes and some wrong decisions, even if we fall flat on our faces. Inaction in the face of unknowns is usually ill-advised in a business context. If you think you are not ready to do something new or you fear that you will make a mistake, do it anyway.

Many women are familiar with the fear of failure, or the fear of the unknown, and many of us believe we have overcome it in the business arena. We often underestimate the fear of success, however. Women are more likely than men to carry this burden, for several reasons. Perhaps we see success as unfeminine, or we view money as corrupting. We may think our lives will take a negative turn if we earn more money than our husbands. We may believe we will lose modesty and humility if we achieve what we define as success. These fears may not be overtly expressed, but they keep our incomes low. Martha Friedman discusses this phenomenon in Overcoming the Fear of Success. If we unconsciously feel we do not deserve something, we will make sure we do not achieve it. This fear of success resides mostly in the unconscious, and it causes us to sabotage our behavior. It can be overcome, however, or at least modified.

Try to examine your fears and your reasons for them. Then make a list of those times when you did something in spite of your fears and uncertainties, and what happened as a result. In business, we are rewarded more often for taking a chance than for being cautious.

What if you get fired? I believe the fear of being fired is more prevalent in women than in men. Highly successful people usually have at least one instance of being fired during their career. This is simply because they have been in high-risk or high-profile positions. When they failed to perform as expected, for whatever reason, they were fired. People who have been fired invariably report that they were devastated when it happened, but that the experience ultimately led to greater opportunities. The next time you hesitate to take a risk, ask yourself if you are afraid of being fired. Then picture yourself as fired. What would you do first? Second? By imagining what we consider to be the worst, we can often overcome the fear of that very thing. Besides, you almost certainly will not be fired. It seems to me the people with the least desirable jobs are the most afraid of losing them.

Perhaps you are afraid of your boss, simply because he or she is your boss. Because this fear of authority is very childlike, it eventually may cause your boss to see you as less than an adult. Remember that bosses are only people. They forget to take out the trash, just like we do, and they get scared and confused when things don't turn out the way they expected. Successfully carrying out the duties of your job is important in business, while cowering and shaking in the presence of your boss are not. Don't assume the people around you are not afraid, and don't let fear determine your behavior.


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