When I was about 6 years old, I remember asking my father what he was afraid of. He thought for a moment, then replied: “Nothing.” I was dumbfounded. “Not even fire?” He thought again. “Not even fire.” Amazing.
Fear is Normal. Fear is Important.
As an adult, I now know that he was just trying to look like a hero to his young son. In reality, we all have fears. Fear is normal and – evolutionarily-speaking – critical for our very survival. Without fear, we’d all be out there falling off of cliffs and being eaten by bears.
For the most part, though, we’ve moved beyond the need for these sorts of life-or-death fears. Most of us are fortunate enough to have a pretty insulated existence and don’t have to fret too much about our physical safety. But nature abhors a vacuum, so now we replace those external fears with all sorts of internal ones; AKA insecurities and anxieties. This includes things like failure, public speaking and – in my personal case – the fear of being late (allegrophobia). (Which, let’s face it, is a pretty good fear to have as a project manager.)
I wanted to explore this further as it applies to our particular profession of choice, so I conducted a survey of dozens of PMs from across North America and Europe to see what they were afraid of. From the results, I identified three main fears for PMs:
- Imposter Syndrome; the irrational belief that we don’t really know what we’re doing and that others will “find us out.”
- Making a mistake that has an obvious and negative impact on either our client or team.
- Being viewed by our teams or clients as unnecessary or at least not providing enough meaningful value to our project/team/company.
Why Are We Like This?
These fears all point to an insecurity or lack of confidence that we as PMs feel in our roles. While this is certainly not unique to us, there are some unique characteristics to our particular profession that make it more widespread and pronounced.
I think the source of the problem is because we aren’t the “doers.” We don’t have a lot of outputs that we can point to and say “I did that.” We’re not generating wireframes or crafting content strategies or writing code. And let’s be honest – there aren’t a lot of awards out there for well-crafted emails or status reports.
Rather, we are the ones that help others do their things – or do them more effectively or efficiently. Alternatively, sometimes it’s not what we do, but what doesn’t happen because of our work, such as a project not going over budget or being late. It’s hard to measure this negative space because it’s difficult to tell how it would’ve gone without us.
What Can We Do About It?
To combat these feelings, we need to find ways to recognize the value of our work. One way to accomplish this is simply by asking our team for validation. “What can I do to make an impact on your work?” and “How have I made an impact on your work?” When you get a good answer, write it down. Recognize the value behind it and take pride in it.
Another is to talk to those who “get it,” i.e. your fellow project managers. Reach out to your peers – inside or outside of your own organization – and share your fears with each other. Not only will you find an empathetic ear, you may also realize that your fears are quite unfounded.