5 Fears of Mid-Level Leaders — Fear of Disconnection
Oct 25, 2023. By Lori Brewer Collins
“Why did I say ‘yes’ to this job? Why have I invested so much of my life into my work? Why did I trust everyone around me so much? I never saw it coming. No one gave me a warning. They’re edging me out, pushing me aside—and it’s painful. I feel like I’m losing my identity. I believe in the company and I still feel I have a long-term contribution to make. But now I wonder. Was I ever any good at this? Am I in the wrong profession? If I am not doing this, what will I do—and how on earth can I make a living?”
Do I belong here?
This fear shows up with any major transition, disappointment or loss. Elizabeth lost her job. Many other things can pull the floor out from under you: not receiving an anticipated promotion, getting shifted into a different division, being passed over when your team is being compensated for a job well done, being suddenly “exited”. When you’re in freefall, you wonder where the bottom is. If you’ve never dealt with this challenge before, it can get really, really scary.
Mid- to late-career leaders are the most common people facing this fear. They’ve been on the normal leadership track and benefitted from progressing naturally through the hierarchy. Each job has significantly defined them, and they’ve found much of their identity through their team and organization. They haven’t thought much about self-development because they’ve been focused on deliverables and objective, quantitative results.
Something has shaken up their world. And now questions are coming to these leaders unannounced and throwing them off center. They’re seeking perspective and trying to understand what has happened. They are starting to see other sides of themselves and beginning to wonder whether they still belong in their current line of work, their present organizational culture, even their groups of colleagues.
I’ve found that people go in one of two directions here: either they internalize and direct their anger and disappointment inward, or they externalize and blame others. If directed inward, they think they’ve done something wrong and they deserve it. Their self-talk may be “I’m to blame” or “Of course this happened to me.” If they direct outward, they think they’ve been wronged and that they are a victim of circumstance. Their self-talk might be “You’re to blame,” “They’re to blame,” or “It’s to blame,” and “Why did this happen to me?”
What’s at Risk?
For these leaders, their sense of worth and identity are most vulnerable because those two concepts have become intimately connected to their job. Their work has become their life, so without the work, who are they? They worry about whether they can find respect and admiration not for filling a certain role or position, but simply for being themselves. Without effectively addressing this fear, these individuals run the risk of several dangerous patterns: a significant lack of direction, a lack of drive to find another job, depression, or a knee-jerk return to a situation where their work fuels their identity.
Key Issues & Challenges
- Reacting to rapid and unexpected changes
- Proving yourself
- Grappling for right answers
- Understanding what it’s all about
- Coping with control issues.
Antidotes to the Fear of Disconnection
- Develop compassion for Self.
If you’re grappling with this fear, you’ve been given the wonderful opportunity to experience greater compassion for yourself, which leads to the capacity for greater compassion for others. You may not see this change in your life as a blessing, but it can be when you choose to pursue this very important developmental step. You can reach a place where you’re comfortable with all your imperfections, where you’re no longer judging yourself so harshly, where you can focus more on “being” than “doing”, and where you can define yourself more broadly than through your work alone.
- Learn to identify and deal with triggers.
You can get flooded with exaggerated emotional responses when confronting this fear. Your sense of self has been questioned and challenged, which can unleash anger at yourself and anger at others. When we’re triggered in these situations, we tend to behave in our least-best selves and, in doing so, we get to confront the worst version of ourselves.
- Do “The Work”.
Byron Katie’s technique, called “The Work”, has been invaluable in helping many of my clients work through situations and relationships in which they have felt disconnection.
- Anchor yourself in the situation/relationship at a specific point in time. Use this free downloadable, one-page worksheet to write down short, simple sentences that capture your uncensored thoughts.
- One at a time, look at each thought you’ve captured, through the lens of these 4 questions:
- Is this thought true? A “yes” answer leads you to question 2; a “no” leads you directly to question 3.
- Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do I react and what happens when I believe that thought? Witness the images you see in your mind, the feelings and sensations in your body, any obsessive thoughts or addictive behaviors that arise, how you behave in the situation, and how you treat the other person and yourself.
- Who would I be without that thought? Return to the situation/relationship, this time without that thought. Drop all your judgments. Notice how you see and feel about what’s happened and the other person.
- Pursue an expanded self-awareness.
If you’re wrestling with a lost dream or lost aspiration, connecting with a trusted friend or possibly working with a skilled coach can help unravel some of the issues surrounding what has happened to you. You may also benefit from having meaningful conversations with someone who can help you with even deeper work on “who you are” (such as a spiritual adviser, a professional therapist, or a counsellor). These individuals can help you explore why you find so much significance through your work and can aid you in finding new answers about your core identity. They can help you with the hard work of writing and living your own life script, rather than blindly following other people’s scripts.
Photo Credit: Indomitable, Zion National Park, Utah by Jerry Park