Do you over-prepare? Face your fears and find the middle ground
I’ve been coaching a leader – let’s call her Mo – who wants to be seen as strategic and ready for the next level rather than just a safe pair of hands.
However, Mo is working on a high-profile project reporting to the board and she’s afraid that, if she’s not all over the detail, her superiors will catch her out. Her nightmare scenario is that they’ll ask her a question, she won’t have the answer and she’ll look stupid, damaging her hopes of promotion.
The upshot is that she’s spending an inordinate amount of time preparing for these board meetings on top of managing a large team. There’s no time left for thinking “what if” or “what’s next” or spending time on relationship-building.
When we explored Mo’s tendency to perfectionism under pressure, I was surprised when she said that, not so long ago, she’d been happy to wing it in situations like this. So what was going on?
“There is circuitry in the brain to ensure we not only learn what to be afraid of, but to never ever forget it.” The Fear-Free Organisation
At birth, we’re genetically programmed to be afraid of loud noises, heights and maybe wild animals. Yet as we grow up, we develop survival strategies in response to perceived threats.
For example, if your Dad had a bit of a temper, as a small child you may have adopted an approach of trying your best to keep him happy so he didn’t get angry with you. Fast-forward 30 years, and you find yourself appeasing your volatile boss instead of standing your ground.
However, we can also get our fingers burned by experiences in adulthood that leave us doing everything we can to avoid that situation happening again.
It’s like your brain remembering when you put your hand on a hot stove – you don’t tend to do it again.
Talking further with Mo, it came to light that she’d had a role 5 years back working for a very critical boss. He’d put her down publicly when she didn’t have all the answers on the tip of her tongue and she lost confidence in herself. She learned to stay quiet rather than risk saying something stupid. Her mantra became “whatever you do, don’t screw up”.
Finding the middle ground
Mo’s painful experience resulted in her seeing her options as black and white – either to wing it and screw it up, or prepare to within an inch of her life in an effort to make the outcome positive. Not surprising given she was afraid of being humiliated again.
What we needed to do was help her find, and work towards, a middle ground – an appropriate level of preparation. These are some of the questions we explored :
- What is the behaviour of over-preparing taking care of? In other words, what are you afraid of? It might be fear of looking stupid, fear of losing your reputation, fear of failure.
- How realistic is this fear? For example, if you don’t have an immediate answer to a question, does this really mean you’ll lose your chances of promotion?
- What does this behaviour cost you? For example, time which could be better spent on other projects or with your family, your happiness and well-being.
- What’s a more helpful perspective here? For example, “they’re asking questions because they care about this project being successful” rather than “they’re trying to catch me out”. You might like to entertain the likelihood that your superiors are afraid too – of looking silly, or failing – which is why they’re looking to you.
- What is within your influence and control and what do you need to let go of? Being prepared is usually a good thing, but no amount of preparation will guarantee what happens in the future. What would “enough” look like?
Don’t allow Fear to eclipse your talents and aspirations. Like the school bully, it may have a lot to say but, more often than not, it’s just bluster and bluff.
What do you think? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alison Reid helps new Directors focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm and effective under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.