Don Akers's Blog
Turning Talent Into Performance

How To Use Fear to Sharpen Your Competitive Edge

Fear, anxiety, worry, trouble, trouble, trouble seems to be the only thing in the news these days.

So what?

Our state of mind is like a lens that filters and influences our interpretation of reality. When we’re afraid, everything scares us. When we’re ecstatic, everything seems funny.

Think about the last time you stayed up late to watch a scary movie, and then you hear a tree brush against a window. It’s just a tree, a sound you’ve heard before, but now you’re scared, because what if it’s more than a tree?

It’s all in our imagination, but the energy to create and hold negative imaginings is as real as the energy needed to do the work that creates value. As leaders we must pay attention to the emotions of our team or risk losing lots of time and energy to useless mental wandering.

Worry, anxiety, and fear, no matter how well intentioned, are nearly always harmful to our emotional well being and business performance.

The ROI on worry and fear is beyond negative.

Practically speaking, we can’t change the whole world, and we aren’t being asked what we want the news media to report. So what to do?

We don’t want to pretend it’s not out there (even if we don’t share that point of view). Even more important, we don’t want to seem uncaring or callous to the real concerns that our people have for their jobs and families.

Final Keynote Prep Work

So what can we do?

First, let’s get clear on why fear is so persistent so we can understand how to work with it. If we are in a cage with a shark, the fear is real and it helps us focus, move faster, and be more deliberate.

When our fear is about something remote (not here in the room threatening us), like business being down, or competition calling on a longtime client, we can get stuck and think, think, think, asking ourselves lots of useless questions that we have no good answer for… What if they decide to switch? What if other clients do, too? What if we can’t pay our bills? What if we end up homeless…?

The logic goes like this… If I lose the sale, I could lose my job; if I lose my job, I won’t have any money. If I don’t have money, I won’t be able to get food; if I have no food, I’ll die.

What we’re really afraid of is not business being down, but dying because it’s down.

How absurd is that? What is the probability that we’ll die because we lose an account or sales are off? It doesn’t matter. When we’re afraid, our brain is in survival mode and doesn’t reason so well.

The disconnect is that being afraid helps us deal with the shark by putting us into action. But fear hurts us if we freeze up. When we ask questions that we don’t have answers to (like, “What if I end up on the street?”), fear takes over and our brains stop working.

So fear and worry is bad, and it won’t go away on its own, and we can’t make it go away when we’re afraid. So now we’re really stuck. Right?

On the contrary, when we take immediate action, the fear goes away. Relax.

Inspired leaders can get out in front of their people and make minor changes that dramatically improve their state of mind.

There are three areas that lend themselves to minor tweaks that make anxiety a thing of the past. I have been very fortunate to work with leaders who naturally create confidence in their people.

They do this by addressing three aspects of their workplace: environment, activity, and attitude.

One of the best leaders I know for creating a positive work environment is Erwin McGowan, a State Farm insurance agent in Houston, TX.

Erwin is emphatic that all office space be clean, well lighted, and organized. Even better, he makes sure to keep cold drinks and snacks available at all times (so his clients and their children feel welcome). The effect it has on his employee/team members is tremendous. How can we pretend that we are starving or the end is imminent when we have cold drinks and food in the break room for free?

Next he puts 8 X 10 portraits of each of his team members on the wall in the entryway. When they walk in the door, they know they are important – and so do their customers.

Erwin does not allow employees to have side conversations in front of clients or gossip during work hours. He rewards his team for everything they produce, everything their group produces, and everything the agency produces.

To say that they work well as a team is an understatement.

The environment is full of life, live plants. It’s clean, has good lighting, it’s organized and supportive of the people and their needs as human beings.


Speaking at the CHART Conference in San Francisco

Action eliminates fear.

When we’re fully engaged in what we’re doing it is impossible to be afraid. As long as we’re moving forward it’s impossible to hold onto fear or worry.

That’s right. When we stay busy, it’s easier to manage our emotions. So the best leaders use anxiety as raw energy and channel it into their work.

Take a page out of the playbook of former high school football coach turned insurance top producer Steve Allen of Flower Mound, Texas.

Steve is one of the big time insurance agents in State Farm’s Texas region. He has lots of people working for him. As a former football coach, he knows that the way people start work dramatically affects their performance.

Steve is the first one at the office every morning and he’s the last one to leave at night. (He may, however, take some time to exercise during the day.) He wants to make sure his people start fast and end strong.

How does he do it? He greets his employees as they come in the door and asks, “How are things?” After listening to what they’re thinking, he says, great, or good, and then he adds, “Well tell me what you’re doing here today.” As they speak, he enthusiastically nods and says, “Yes, yes, good, nice, excellent. Let me know how it goes.”

Steve always gets more excited, speaking faster, and getting louder as the conversation goes on. Within two minutes, his employees have left their worries at home and they are ready to work.

At the end of the day, he reverses the process. He asks, “How did it go? What went well? What are you doing tomorrow?” He ends with, “Great! And now I want you to leave everything at work. It will be here tomorrow. Have a great evening.”

By doing this, he helps his people start faster, and he makes sure they know what to do first. There is no time to dither,
pine, or worry in his office.

Steve influences people in a very subtle way. He uses his position without force. He ensures that home problems stay at home. Work becomes a sanctuary, safe from worry and anxiety. Work issues stay at work, allowing people to be fully present for their families.

Strategy One:
Keep your environment in shape — warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Make it look like talented, committed, and confident people work there. Never cut the coffee budget in hard times. What does it tell your team if you go from great coffee to less-than-great coffee after you layoff a few people? “We can’t even afford coffee.”

Strategy Two:
Start fast and stay busy. By starting fast and staying busy, we won’t have time to worry. Stay busy and you won’t be afraid.

…Stay tuned for more strategies!


3 Responses to “How To Use Fear to Sharpen Your Competitive Edge”

  1. Hey, Don;

    Great content. This article is “right on the button” as your stuff always is. Action cures fear. a great maxim to live by. The tips about office environment and staff coaching are all excellent. Keep putting it out, and we’ll keep applying it.

    Best of Fortune,

    Tom @

    • Hey Tom,

      Thanks for your encouragement.

      More on the way soon.

      Let me know what challenges you have that you don’t have plans, strategies or solutions for.

      Be well,

  2. I read your newsletter every month. Thanks for giving me information to think about and apply. I’d like you to add a friend to the list. He has a small business and could benefit from your information!

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