The Unspeakable Word

Originally Posted August 2017

I use the f-word pretty freely now, although there was a time in my corporate life when I discovered that the f-word must not be uttered out loud.

It happened in a project meeting. In the back of my mind I had recently joined a club. The name of my imaginary club might have been something like the “speak truth to power club” or the “insiders of big change club.”

​How had I joined this club? I was working with a really good coach and for the first time in my working career, I was starting to understand that “normal” behavior in the office was actually detrimental to getting real work done.

For example, people would say they were doing something for one reason, and they were really doing if for another reason. Or they would praise you in private and then criticize you to another person. Or they would be supportive in talking but not in the doing. Or what they showed as confidence was really bluster. Who knew?!?!

My coach was having me understand those rules of the game so that I could be effective in getting the biggest project of my career implemented.

When I started realizing that there was gamesmanship going on, it seemed I had been given a glance into an exclusive club, where everyone understood the rules of the game except me. Now I was one of the “cool” kids and I was anxious to show my newfound knowledge.

It was in a critical project meeting with a key supporter (I thought) and player of the Game that I knowingly used the f-word in front of Mr. Supporter. Oh how naïve could I be? His reaction told me – without needing a coach or membership in an exclusive club- that I had said something unspeakable.

Our project was leading one of the biggest changes that had ever been done and it was cutting to the core of the identity of the people involved. They were not embracing change. Sometimes they showed their unhappiness in obvious ways and more often than not, it came out in ways that added up to avoiding having to change anything. “No need to change anything here – please move along.”

My coach had taught me that those behaviors are normal in change and that the “swamp” of emotions would best be managed by allowing the emotions to exist while NOT allowing the emotions to stop the change.

So I looked at Mr. Supporter and said “As you might except, we are seeing quite a fear in the x office. I would love to strategize on how we navigate that.”

It was then that I knew I should never utter the “f-word”, at least in front of him. He picked up his pen, looked me in the eye, gave me a dark look and said “Who are you hearing that from?” He was ready to take names! And I knew in my heart that he was not looking to support those people – they would be crucified for not being “on board.”

I found a way to move the conversation away from kicking ass and taking names. I was suddenly caught in my own fear of “getting in trouble” from saying the wrong thing. I can’t remember what I said next – just that I moved away from the hot topic of fear and went into some kind of safety mode.

My fear about fear stopped me. 

Upon reflection, I realized that Mr. Supporter was as caught in the game as anyone and that fear is the unspeakable word in many work environments.

It was then and it is now.

Yet in circles of people doing big things, fear is not only spoken about, it is embraced as a normal part of the process. Tim Ferriss even has a show called “Fear-less” which tackles the subject with founders of awesome companies like Tom’s Shoes and ESPN. He also did a fantastic TED talk titled “Why you should define your fears instead of your goals.”
Let’s take fear from all powerful to putting it in its place. Let’s use the f-word freely. Fear is there whether you speak it or not, and it has only the power you give it. Nothing more.

Let fear teach you instead of control you. 

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