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Fear of the First Time

Posted: May 31st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Coaching | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

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“Oh! I am not sure I will get this right, because I am doing it for the first time.” As a manager, how many times have we heard this refrain in our careers? More importantly, as irritated managers how many times have we pounced on some hapless co-worker who might have uttered these words fearing failure, reprimand and a possible loss of face?

Impatient managers who abhor this “fear of the first time” have their own punchlines for such co-workers. “Well, there is always a first time,” is the most common, intelligent and least helpful refrain. Then there are uncharitable ones like “did anyone really teach you to eat or sleep?” We also have the downright abominable comment about an individual’s first sexual encounter. So, how should a manager react to such situations?

One can react aptly only when one is aware of this feeling, which ironically most managers would have felt at in their careers but are loathe to admit it or share it. William Shakespeare said: “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”  In other words, a person’s ability to perform to potential is largely governed by the fear that they feel when confronted by the impact of failure.

It is not so much failure that causes them anxiety but the fear of failure. Such people tend to have a low appetite for risk taking. What they forget is that playing it safe itself carries a different kind of risk. The risk of not rising to one’s potential. Consider an athlete who does not challenge her own previous mark, because it assures her a gold medal each time.

Why does this fear of the first time happen? Our minds are conditioned to seek precedents. We plead ignorance at such times because our mind does not retrieve data from similar past situations. In a way, it is the fear of the unknown that keeps us in our comfort zones. The smarter ones amongst us, however, tries to retrieve data by tapping into wider knowledge pools like books or inputs from their respective ecosystems like friends, colleagues etc.

For every ten people who experience ‘fear for the first time’, there comes one who takes up the challenge. Haven’t we all come across that smart kid at our workplace who never says ‘no’ to a challenge? She ‘figures things out’ using that modern day marvel called Google that helps the even the most ignorant appear knowledgeable after clicking a few buttons. These are also the type of people who never underestimate their ability to recover from failure.

In a recent post on one of the numerous self-help resources available on the Web, I came across a smart piece of writing that described the Seven Ways to Overcome the Fear of Failure. The author talks of the risk-to-benefit analysis and how one can research alternatives and imagine the worst-case scenario to understand the benefits of failure.

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However, what appealed to me the most was the seventh commandment which involved burning the boats. Yes! the author refers to the ancient practice among Greeks who burnt their boats upon reaching foreign shores so that their solders’ resolve to win at battle became stronger.

Only victory could get them new boats and a passage back home! The option to fight failure is to follow through and keep one’s appointment with success, the author argues.

Which brings me to the moot question of how managers should treat this ‘fear of the first time’ within their team? Should she show patience with her co-workers?

Or should she simply assign the task and ask the Doubting Thomases to “go and figure things out”? Haven’t we been told that the best way to learn swimming is to throw someone into the deepest end?

Or should they just burn the boats?

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