top of page

The Hidden Fear that Undermines Your Career

Fear is a natural part of the human experience, especially as we embark on any type of change. Anything that involves a shift in routine or a step outside the comfort zone can feel intimidating. As an executive coach, I partner with clients who are all engaged in some kind of transition. Some are making a dramatic career change, while others are simply growing within their existing roles. Regardless of the nature and intensity of the change, fears naturally creep in.

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that many professionals experience a fear of failure. They worry that they’ll make it to the next level and then not be able to meet expectations. The risk of failure often overpowers their motivation to succeed, which holds them back and keeps them from reaching their goals.

What you might find surprising is that many also have a fear of success. Sounds funny, right? Who wouldn’t want to be successful? Most of us wouldn’t admit to a fear of success, even if we consciously recognized it within ourselves. There are actually a number of success-related fears that, if not addressed, undermine many talented professionals’ careers.

1. Fear of increased visibility

You’re in a groove right now. You’ve figured out how to perform at your best and still fly under the radar so that you don’t attract too much attention. Could you do more? Sure! But that would mean increased exposure and you’re not sure you’re ready for it.

Once you reach a certain level, you can’t hide anymore. Being successful requires that you assume a more prominent role, which often means taking center stage in meetings, actively promoting your work, and experiencing increased scrutiny by your colleagues and leadership team. If you’re not comfortable with greater visibility, you might choose to avoid higher profile opportunities, which will inevitably cause you to plateau in your career.

Don’t let your fear of visibility keep you from maximizing your talents. Begin by reflecting on the fear itself.

Are you an introvert by nature who prefers not to be too visible? There are many highly successful introverts who’ve found ways to both authentically express themselves and effectively adapt to the environment around them. As you look ahead, don’t compare yourself to the spotlight-stealing extrovert who always knows just what to say. Be clear about who you want to be and leverage your own strengths to achieve your goals.

Are you uncomfortable communicating with others? If you struggle to articulate your ideas, you’re not alone. Often it’s not your communication skills that are the issue but your lack of clarity about your message. If you’re worried about your ability to convey information in a succinct and compelling fashion, practice ahead of time. Translate your thoughts into words before talking with your audience to ensure that you’re crystal clear about what you want to communicate.

Do you lack confidence in yourself? Lack of confidence is often the biggest culprit. We have a tendency to focus on our weaknesses and disregard our strengths, so we don’t see ourselves as special. Take a moment to reflect on how far you’ve come. Remind yourself that each step in your career (and life) has required an adjustment. And while it might not have been easy, you’ve found a way to navigate all of the changes thus far.

Becoming more visible can feel scary but it’s also a great opportunity. It offers you greater influence, a stronger voice, and a greater sense of connectedness to others. Before you let your fear of exposure keep you from pursuing a better opportunity, try to address the underlying issue that stands in your way.

2. Fear of rising expectations

You’ve set the bar for yourself at a certain level and are currently comfortable meeting your own and others’ expectations. You work hard but you’ve also determined where you can cut corners. Your work has a comfortable rhythm to it and the predictability, while sometimes frustrating, feels safe.

When you reach the next level, expectations change. More people are paying attention, which means you have to step up your game. Your new peer group has also set the bar higher. You can no longer afford to coast through your job.

It’s time to decide what’s important to you. Do you want to feel challenged? Do you want to fully utilize your skills and talents? If you do, you’ll need to consistently push yourself.

Think back on a recent challenge and the feeling of victory you experienced after conquering it. Was it exhilarating? Would you like to feel that more often? Comfort is a double-edged sword. We feel safe but there’s not a lot of excitement. What do you want to be known for? Performing a predictable role with ease or challenging yourself to always be the best version of yourself?

And remember, your last role didn’t start out smoothly and predictably. What feels natural to you today was once a new and uncomfortable role with increased expectations. The learning curve is often a challenge but someday you’ll be cruising through the next role.

3. Fear of upsetting the status quo

Many people have mixed feelings about success because of what it represents to them. If, for example, you belong to a family where everyone has maxed out at middle management, rising to the executive level might stir up feelings of guilt or shame. You might worry that your family will resent you or see you as “one of them.” You might also worry that success will change who you are.

Our perceptions of success also tend to be tied to money. We expect that rising levels of success will be accompanied by increased compensation. Money tends to trigger a lot of emotions in people. Some feel that they don’t deserve it. Others view it through the lens of income inequality and fairness. Still others worry about what it will do to their relationships.

It’s important to remember that you are not defined by your title and compensation. Your work is just one piece of your identity. That being said, these are complex issues that can be difficult to overcome. If these resonate with you, it would be worthwhile to address them with a coach or other objective party who can help you to clarify your values and reconcile your professional goals with your personal identity.

Have you experienced these success-related fears in the past? Maybe you’re facing them now. If you believe that your fears are keeping you from increased success, as you define it, seek support to help you address them. However stubborn and deep-rooted your fears may seem, it is possible to overcome them and reach your goals.

bottom of page