To overcome fear in business, you first need to recognise it.

As Commercial & Capability Director for CIPD — the professional body for HR and people development — Gill White is uniquely placed to reflect on how the unknown can affect each one of us in our business lives. And as a past delegate she’s also seen how the Leadership Trust guides leaders to Love the Don’t Know and turn it to advantage. We asked Gill about her own encounters with the unknown, and how she deals with them.

Know your triggers

In your industry you’ll often have witnessed people and businesses run slap bang into the unknown. What happens when they do?
“It depends on where any leader is on their own self-awareness journey. If they’re not particularly good at recognising what triggers their fear of the unknown, then they won’t know how to control it — or make the most of it.

“They tend to go to their ‘safe place’ and I used to be as guilty as the next person of doing exactly that; going to the safest reversion to type. So when I used to be an Ops Director and I was triggered by an unknown, it would all be about short termism: ‘let’s get the figures on the board.’

“All the long-term aspirations and the right stuff that you should be doing get thrown out of the window.”

Gill White, Commercial & Capability Director for CIPD

Train your mind

So how do you brace yourself for the Don’t Know and avoid falling prey to it?
“You need to understand what your triggers are and where they’ll make you go — from ‘catastrophisation’ to closing down with fear. It’s not just your mental state but your physiological state too. Even if you’re conscious you’re being triggered, do you have the ability to ‘breathe through it’ and pull yourself back from that brink?

“One of my personal triggers — and probably for a lot of other people too — is lack of control. That trip to the airport where you’ve done everything you can to arrive on time, but there’s a crash on the motorway you can do nothing about… That’s an absolute trigger for me to catastrophise and leap to the worst possible outcome.

“That’s when you need to check yourself and ask, so what is the worst thing that could happen? You’ll miss the plane. Is that really the end of the world? No. Will people think worse of you for something outside of your control? No. Will you find a way around it? Yes, of course you will because it’s what you do.”

That can still be a pretty difficult trick to pull off?

“I think the key is developing the ability to let your mind go to that worst case scenario — you may not be able to stop yourself anyway — but learn to pull back from it and say, so in reality, how likely is that to be the case?

“I had a boss who used to say that failure was wonderful because it meant you were stretching further than you’d ever done before, and that is absolutely true.

“Adopt the mindset that says, I’m going to do this, it might not work, but actually the consequences are not disastrous if it doesn’t, and if it does, just imagine what you could achieve…”


Working with the Leadership Trust

What did you learn as a Leadership Trust delegate that helped your own preparations for the unknown?

“The greatest learning we took away from the work we did was around assumptions and rules. Time and time again, as we worked through our sessions, we made assumptions about rules that were not actually there. We limited our success by not really taking time to understand the issue before trying to solve it.

“This is a brilliant lesson to take into the unknown — not to jump to solution but to make sure you understand as much as possible about what’s really going on before you act in haste.”

Making it happen in practice

How does that translate to the day-to-day running of a business in such a volatile and uncertain environment?

“The ‘unknown’ has always been around, but I think it’s worse now than it’s ever been because of the speed of change. Every day throws up new economic, political or internal issues, and if you’ve still got a lot of work to do on your own mindset and mental state, then I think you can put yourself and your team in the way of a lot of unnecessary harm.

“You have to help your team understand that not only is change the new norm (as it actually has been for a while now), but it’s going to get faster and faster.

“Show them it’s ok not to know, as long as you’re ready to go through the critical thinking processes that will get you to the answer, and you do it agilely.

“This whole way of working more socially, out-loud and failing fast is great, but it requires you to be very open and ok with the flexibility of it; the fact that something you may have spent months on needs to be completely discarded, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Leading teams into the Don’t Know

Guiding people through the unknown is a big challenge. How do you tackle it?

“For me one of the secrets is to genuinely treat everybody as an individual, and be the leader they need you to be at the time they need you to be it.

“You cannot bring an entire team with you in one go because they will all be at different levels — different levels of confidence, of self-esteem, with different triggers.

“Obviously you need to be doing all the team stuff you would do anyway, but the individual work is very important, especially with change, because people become paralysed by it, and often for very individual reasons.

“So my tip would be to work to understand those filters, what’s brought every member of your team, individually, to the place they’re now in. Do that, and you’ll help them embrace the unknown and its possibilities rather than having a mindset where fear of what might happens limits your life and your business.”


Follow our publication on Medium

Find out more about our leadership development open courses and tailored programmes

Share this story

Tailored programmes

Created uniquely for your organisation’s challenges and the leaders you need your team to be.


How to contact us:

Call us 01989 767667 or email us