Last of a Six-Part Series on The Tempting Ten Wallow Words
(Links to previous parts below)


Most of the Wallow Words in this series have a common cause. Fear.

In the depths of the Great Depression, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt famously declared in his first inaugural address in 1933, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Fear feeds mistrust and destroys relationships. Fear erects walls and closes ears. Fear craves power and demands compliance. Fear fosters bullying and abuse of position power. Fear is afraid of participation, transparency, and openness. Fear keeps us from speaking up.

Fear does not own up to mistakes. Fear shuts down feedback and learning. Fear creates the zero-sum thinking that leads to a scarcity mentality. Fear cultivates conflict.


Perfection Deflection: Fear of Admitting Mistakes

Fear can cause us to expect perfection from ourselves and others.

Psychiatrist and Stanford University professor, David Burns, says, “Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person.”

Progress — especially in turbulent times — means climbing stairs we’ve never been on before. For leaders on the grow, failing-our-way-to-success, experimenting with trial and error is exciting. For insecure, fearful managers, mistakes are threatening and impair learning. As revered Nobel prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein observed, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

Zenger Folkman’s research shows that successful leaders made the same number of mistakes as unsuccessful ones did. But the former openly acknowledged what happened, tried to fix it, learned from the experience, and moved on. The latter hid their mistakes, did not alert colleagues or take steps to rectify the problem, and brooded about the problem for years. “Our research confirms that the inability to learn from mistakes is the single biggest cause of failure.”


Fear Activates Anger and Resentment

Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intention of throwing it at someone else — you are the one who gets burned.”

Anger and resentment are like highly corrosive acid; they eat the container that holds them. It’s like sending a letter bomb to a person we’re angry with, only to have the package returned to us. Failing to recognize our own silently ticking box, we open it and unleash all those destructive — usually hateful emotions — on ourselves.

Turning anger into hate is especially deadly. Hate is the ultimate “return to sender.” It boomerangs back to destroy us.

Anger and resentment are normal emotions when we’ve been hurt by someone else or experienced a traumatic event. They may even be vital first steps in our healing process. Wallowing in these negative emotions, however, is our biggest danger.

Steven Stosny, author, and counselor to people with anger and relationship problems, said, “The function of anger is to protect vulnerability and neutralize threat…. the threat is almost always to the ego (how we want to think of ourselves and have others think of us). Anger neutralizes ego-threat by devaluing, demeaning, or undermining the confidence of the person perceived to be threatening.”


Fear Smothers Communication

Ironically, with instant communication technologies all around us, poor communication is a huge problem. It’s a complex issue with both cause and effect tightly intertwined. In many cases, people don’t have the skills to address tough issues with each other. So, they do it poorly and raise defensiveness in the other person or incite destructive, personal conflict. Often, people are afraid to speak up because they have seen others ostracized, nudged off the promotion track, ignored, or punished with the least desirable assignments.

Adding to the noise of communication issues is information overload. Managers often confuse “communicating” with “information” through electronic messages or death-by-PowerPoint. This reduces meaningful two-way communication. Everyone is scrambling to frantically clear inboxes or make it through yet another meeting. There is no time for thoughtful and difficult conversations. Information quantity is confused with communication quality.

The key leadership question is, what are we doing to improve communications? We’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. We can ride the Bitter Bus down Helpless Highway into Pity City and complain about “them” or “nobody ever tells me anything.” Or we can build our communication skills, go get the information we need, connect with others, and identify the moose-on-the-table. We can act like a leader.


Fear Less: Finding The Courage to Strengthen Our Leadership

Our personal development journey is strongly determined by the extent of our courage. Do we seek feedback that we don’t want to hear? Can we forgive and forget? Are we open to opposing views or approaches? Are we ready to address personal and professional obstacles blocking our growth? Are we continually stretching our comfort zone?

The Tempting Ten Wallow Words Series