“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.” That’s what Cheryl Strayed concludes in her best-selling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
After her mother’s death, Strayed made a string of bad choices that led to a failed marriage and substance abuse. With nothing more to lose, she set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with no training or experience but lots of baggage, both figurative and literal. (Her backpack was so heavy she couldn’t even stand up.)
To her surprise and that of many others, Strayed hiked alone for 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and then from Oregon to Washington. She later wrote Wild to chronicle her journey of embracing the mess in her life by conquering fear and focusing on a path forward.
Change—even positive changes like improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace—inevitably brings uncertainty. Yet when we acknowledge the reality of change, name the fears we face, accept the challenges, and then forge a positive path forward, we will encounter breakthrough success.
Acknowledging the Reality: We Fear Change
Efforts towards true diversity and inclusion provoke fear. The majority group fears loss of power or privilege. Or they fear they’ll say or do the wrong things as they try to be candid about issues related to diversity.
Minority groups fear being honest. Are they safe to speak their truth? Will they be taken seriously if their viewpoint or role is elevated or they’re seen as a “diversity hire”?
And all humans, regardless of position, fear the unknown of change, the disorder that inevitably flows from a lack of predictability.
Whatever the fear someone experiences, those feelings are real. Part of acknowledging fear is recognizing that you are afraid and that it’s natural and normal to experience it.
Naming those fears enables us to productively work through them and consider them in context, separate from the concrete reality, eg., “What’s the worst that can happen?” “Is this likely to occur?”
As William James, the father of American psychology explained, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over the other.”
It’s OK to be afraid. The key is what you do with it. Our feelings aren’t always in our control, but how we choose to respond to them is within our control. Don’t give in to fear; it only inhibits progress. Instead, let’s label them and then view them for what they are: obstacles to positive transformation and progress.
Leaning into and Leveraging Fear
The first step to leveraging fear and moving forward is to embrace the mess.
As Cheryl Strayed explained, “The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail … was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound … I considered my options.… I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
Even if we’ve never had to avoid the dangers of wildlife or of lowlifes on an epic hike, we can empathize with Strayed’s situation. On our journey ahead, we face difficult choices, sometimes painful and often involuntary, but we continue anyway, because the promise of what waits on the other side of the mountain propels us forward.
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed,” Strayed said, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story…. I decided I was brave … nothing could vanquish me.”
Visualizing the Goal and Encouraging Your Fellow Travelers
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail brings lots of uncertainty, but hikers attempt it because of the rewards of finishing, from the views to the bragging rights to the experiences along the way.
Even though Strayed tackled the trail alone, fellow travelers assisted her on the journey and encouraged her by describing the rewards to come if she continued. They enabled her to picture herself as unafraid, as capable.
Our teams need us to do the same as they embrace the chaos and disorder of new ways of inclusion. How do we do it?
- Articulate a Clear, Positive Vision That’s Easy to Visualize
Does your team understand the vision? Can they picture the rewards at the end?
To combat the fear and anxiety change brings, we must provide a specific, clear vision that combats the negative visions lurking in team members’ imaginations.
- Leverage Your Early Adopters
Unleash your early adopters to testify about the benefits of achieving the goal. Let them describe why it’s worth overcoming the challenges in relationships, power structure, expectations, or whatever else change brings.
Like an uphill hike to a waterfall, we can be spurred on by the hikers who run ahead and then tell us of the beauty we can see if we just keep going a little longer.
Breakthrough Success: It’s Worth It
Perhaps the journey to the destination is the most valuable part of the path forward for our teams as we embrace the mess. What we learn about them and ourselves could be worth even more than the treasure we were seeking.
Embrace the fear, the change, the chaos. Don’t side-hug it. Give it a sloppy hug with lots of pats on the back, a hug that says, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Ready to be brave and embrace the mess? Join us for some real talk, with real people, about real problems at Undivided: Getting Real About Diversity and Inclusion, a half-day, virtual unconference experience.