Mitigating the Impact of Fear: Strategies for Being an Inclusive & Equitable Leader

What propels you forward? Is it motivation, inspiration, ambition, or fear? What holds you back? If you said “fear,” you are not alone. Fear can be both a motivator to drive you forward and a paralyzing force.  

Sometimes we are driven to action because we are afraid of what may happen if we don’t take action. I am going to get a college degree because I am afraid that if I don’t, I will be stuck in a dead-end job. I am going to lose weight because I am afraid that if I don’t I will develop diabetes. But fear can also stop us in our tracks. I want to go to college, but I am afraid I won’t be able to pay for it. I want to lose weight, but I am afraid I am just going to gain it all back again.  

Fear is an emotion induced by anticipation of some specific pain or danger, and it can prevent us from living the life we want or being the person we want to be. Fear can guide our actions without us being aware that we are acting (or not) acting based on fear.  

To ensure that our actions and inactions are not fear-based, we must become aware of what scares us. Those fears that drive us forward and hold us back? Without such awareness, we allow fear to dictate our actions or inaction. If we don’t acknowledge what rattles us, our fears will rule us, and we won’t know why. More importantly,  we won’t have a strategy to address them when they arise. 

As it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusivity, what fears come up for you? What fears overrule your values? 

  • A department does not hire people of color and defends it by saying there are no qualified candidates of color. 
  • You notice there are no people of color on a particular committee. 
  • A colleague makes derogatory comments about women leaders. You don’t agree with the comments but you usually give a short chuckle and quickly move on to keep the peace. There is a fear at play here. How do I know?  Because you recognize that something derogatory has been said, you don’t agree with the comment, but you don’t address it either. 

So what do you do?  Try these four steps. 

Become Aware of the Fear. How do you become aware of your fear? Dig deep and ask yourself the five “whys.” What is stopping me from taking action? What fear has prevented me from moving forward? What fear is getting in the way? What about this is scary for me?  

 And what about that scares me? Your answers may vary:

-I am afraid that if I say something, it will make the situation worse.

-I am afraid that saying something will put me on the spot, making me defend why I don’t think the comment is appropriate or why I disagree with the comment. 

-I am afraid the person will think I am a liberal or a bleeding heart.

-I am afraid if they think I am a liberal they won’t like me anymore.

-I am afraid they will tell other people I am liberal, and others won’t like me. I will become an outcast. 

Analyze the Fear. Ask yourself a series of questions. Where does this fear come from? What beliefs have been revealed? Do I really believe that? Is this what I want to believe? Is this real or based on a story I have told myself? Is there a different context I can put this in? Do I really believe that if I speak my mind I will become an outcast? Is that realistic? Might there be a different outcome? What happens if I continue to ignore these kinds of comments?

Decide the Role or Impact You Want the Fear to Have. Now that you are aware of the fear and have analyzed it, determine what role or impact you want that fear to have in your life. You might decide that you are perfectly fine with this fear and you don’t want to do anything about it. I have a fear that I am perfectly fine with. I will likely transition from my physical life, still being afraid of confined spaces. Yes, this fear prevents me from having certain experiences, but I have decided I am okay with that.   I am not fine with other fears (like fear of heights), so I have addressed that. More on that later.

You might decide that you don’t want to be the person that ignores or laughs at derogatory comments but rather someone who calls them out. If that is who you want to be, you need to develop a plan of action for the next time a person has a derogatory comment and your fear of becoming an outcast kicks in. Decide what role or impact you want this fear to have in your life, interactions, and choices. Ask yourself:

-Do I want to live my values or abandon my values for fear of becoming an outcast? 

-Do I want to be the person who speaks up when I see others being mistreated, or do I want to be the person who lets those things slide so I don’t get labeled a liberal? 

Devise a plan. If you decide you’d rather not speak up when someone else makes a derogatory comment, that’s fine.  You know your fear, you have analyzed your fear, you have determined you are fine with that fear, and when it comes up, you are going to continue to chuckle and quickly move on.  That is how you have decided to address that fear. As part of accepting my fear of confined spaces, I do not get into crowded elevators. When I stay in a hotel, my plan is to have my luggage ready super early in the morning to take downstairs so I am not caught up in the elevator rush. My luggage is already downstairs, ready to go, and if the elevators are crowded later in the morning, I happily (and without stress or anxiety) take the stairs. There is absolutely no need for me to face that particular fear. But I do have a plan for when it comes up.

I don’t want to be afraid of heights or let a fear of heights limit me, so if I find myself in a height situation and start to panic, my plan is to tell myself a new self-narrative that will allow me to face that fear.

If you decide you want to live your values and not ignore derogatory comments, come up with a plan for behaving or responding the next time a person makes a derogatory remark. Maybe your plan is first to take three deep breaths to calm and center yourself. Next, you might plan to simply say, “That was unkind,” or “Ouch, that was hurtful.” Come up with a planned response so that you don’t have to hunt for something to say when a comment is made. When someone says X, I will say Y.  Now you have a plan to utilize when confronted with a fear that you have decided you do not want to rule your life, interactions, or decision-making. Whatever it is, develop a plan for that fear. The next time that fear presents itself, you are prepared. 

Following these four steps will help mitigate fears that impact your life, interactions, and decision-making and can help you become more inclusive and equitable. 

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