We are all wrestling with fear. Why aren’t we more strategic? Why don’t we just follow our passions? Why do some people, but not others, succeed at living the life they want and doing the work that most fulfills them?
Throughout my years of working with almost every type of organization and business, I’ve noticed a pattern in just about every employee I encounter, regardless of title or position. In the workplace, people tend to operate on a sliding scale, from fearful to loving mind-sets. The more insecurity that’s present, the further down the scale a person’s mind goes toward fear. The more hope and confidence a person possesses, the further up the scale they go toward a loving mind-set, where they’re able to focus on the big picture and helping others.
It’s not rocket science, and it may seem similar to other theories of human behavior. But visualizing this sliding scale has helped me navigate many sticky workplace situations, and it’s helped many others dig themselves out of a career mudslide.
Why Love Matters in the Workplace
At work, we’re told to leave our personal lives at home and to be professional. We’re told not to take things personally. It’s just business, after all. Yet in the same breath, we’re told to be engaged, motivated, and to give 100 percent. We long to love what we do. Everyone seems to be afraid that if we start uttering the word love in the workplace, we’ll start hugging each other for hours on end, singing “Kumbaya” and getting lost in a self-help circle of trust.
How are people not seeing the contradiction in this approach? When we talk about love—and actually love what we do—we’re more likely to operate in “the flow” and use our unique gifts. Work itself becomes a reward, so we’re less consumed with (often) meaningless titles. When we love working with those around us, we get energy back from the energy we invest, which reduces burnout. Our work feeds our spirit, and we have more zest and purpose in our lives, with more of our authentic selves available to our loved ones.
When I’m coaching people about their careers, my goal is to determine what fears are holding them back from this state of love. I look for three core mind-sets, each of which tips off where a person is on this sliding scale.
The Safety Mind-Set: Drowning Mode
When our sense of safety is threatened, we go into survival mode and fear escalates. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is real or not. What matters is that we perceive ourselves as being under attack. I like to compare this to how someone acts when drowning. What do people look like when they’re in the middle of drowning? Are they calm, cool, and collected? No. They’re flailing around, panicked and deathly afraid. And what happens when a lifeguard swims out to save them? Does a drowner politely greet them and thank them for taking the time out of their busy day to swim out to help? No. In fact, lifeguards are trained to view drowners as dangerous.
So what does a person who’s drowning on the job look like? They’re usually pretty obvious. They tend to be territorial, aggressive, or controlling. They lash out, no matter who tries to save them. We often don’t realize these drowners are panicking—afraid of job or financial instability, or being replaced by technology. Their fearful behaviors, in turn, trigger our own defensiveness, which brings out the jerk versions of ourselves. It’s a crazy, fear-filled roller-coaster ride.
The key to pulling ourselves out of this safety mind-set is self-love, hope, and confidence. Though external factors can do a lot to lift us away from the fears that plague us, the most reliable way out is to direct ourselves back to a place of calm through the thoughts we choose, no matter the circumstances.
The Looking Good Mind-Set: What Do Others Think of Me?
As we move out of the safety mind-set, we’re still operating from a sense of fear. But this fear stems less from a perceived threat to our safety and more from a threat to our social acceptance. You may think this isn’t a big deal, but it is. We’re all hard-wired to avoid being ostracized.
If you name-drop or use “The boss is asking for xyz” to drive work, you are motivated by looking good. If you are more concerned with the wrath or approval of your boss than delivering the best result for the business, you are concerned with looking good.
This roller coaster sets up a punishment-reward cycle that stokes our addiction to looking good. This is why people bend over backward and beat themselves down to win favor from their managers, who are likely just as dysfunctional—which is why they are overly critical and defensive. But a single “attaboy” is enough incentive for employees to sell their souls just to win the favor of a random person the company assigned as a boss or manager. And the more critical the boss, the more people compete, backstab, and manipulate to get those “lookin’ good” carrots.
All this competition and activity leads bosses to think they “look good” because their team fears them and is super busy. But here’s the thing: Rarely are these teams truly productive. Even if the team does produce something, several dead bodies are typically scattered in the wake. It’s hard to put a price on the impact this has on morale and engagement, not to mention missed opportunities for collaboration and creative genius.
So we have to be vigilant about noticing when we are prioritizing doing things to please others above servicing the greater good.
The Strategically Helpful Mind-Set: How Can We All Level Up?
At the top of the sliding scale is when we’re feeling confident and are helping others. We all have moments when we’re strategically helpful in the workplace. But what does this look like? It’s when we are calm and focused on solutions instead of getting credit, when we’re balancing our own goals with the needs of the greater whole. It’s not about being a martyr. You don’t sacrifice what you need or want. Instead, you use your creativity and strategic thinking to align your needs with the needs of those around you. This is where collaboration is most useful. This is where your ideas and choices serve to elevate everyone, including yourself.
This kind of strategic collaboration is the key to building lasting relationships that will travel with you throughout your career. And in this day and age of rapid change, relationships—both good and bad—will last longer than any work that is in front of you today. So level up, and bring others with you for the ride. It will all come back in spades.