Why advocating fearlessness is fruitless: The 4 benefits of insecurity

Why advocating fearlessness is fruitless: The 4 benefits of insecurity

Many companies have ‘Be Fearless’ as one of their core values. The purpose is to motivate and reward employees who are able to push through the boundary of self limiting behavior such as feelings of insecurity or self-doubt. The prize at the end of this particular rainbow is higher performance. But is it. Really?


In her recent article, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendrickson argues against the promise of fearlessness. “Insecurity” she explains “Is not just useful but has aided us in our evolution”. It turns out that, “A healthy dose of self-doubt spurs us to monitor ourselves and our interactions. It prompts introspection and helps us identify ourselves and our interactions”. However, Hendrickson’s views run counter to the corporate manifesto of fearlessness. For example,  CEO Stefania Mallett proposes, “It’s much easier to achieve success in a company where employees bring their whole selves to work, and act fearlessly and out of their own conviction”.

While I have no argument with whole selves or conviction, the benefits of fearlessness seem more hype than reality. To provide context, let’s explore the 4 benefits of insecurity.

Insecurity isn’t an oversight of evolution. It’s necessary: a healthy dose of self-doubt spurs us to monitor ourselves and our interactions. It prompts introspection and helps us identify how to get along better with our fellow humans. In short, we doubt ourselves in order to check ourselves.


1. Slow twitch risk. Fear makes us more cautious. We assess the likely outcomes of a decision and take the time to look before we leap. In many ways it’s the opposite of the Silicon Valley mantra of ‘move fast and break things’. While this doesn’t mean slowing down decision making or performance, it does mean fewer knee-jerk decisions based on inadequate information and the desire to just ‘kill’ something. Acknowledging and accepting fear can also be an antidote to the problem of taking action as a way to ameliorate feelings of inadequacy or anxiety. I’ve worked with many clients who practice ‘ready; fire; aim’ thinking as a way to avoid the anxiety, fear or self-doubt that often accompanies reflecting on tough choices or difficult  experiences.


2. Team and organizational cohesion. Acknowledging fear, doubt or insecurity is an acknowledgment of vulnerability, and as Brene Brown describes, “courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen”. Sharing self-doubt means being vulnerable and being vulnerable means being visible. These behaviors create relationships that are more, not less resilient.


3. Fearless Dominance. Quick question. If you had to summarize the essential characteristics of a person who typifies ‘fearlessness’ what qualities would they have? Supreme self-confidence? Arrogance? A total lack of fear? Interestingly, these personality attributes describe the 1% of the population who have a diagnosis of ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’. Colloquially known as psychopathy. (As an aside describing someone who may end up with a severed head in his fridge as antisocial seems the ultimate understatement). This is not to say ‘fearless dominance’ isn’t a highly prized attribute in certain situations. For example, individuals with high ‘fearlessness’ have been found to be ‘stress-proof’, and their lack of concern about the consequences of their actions means they are substantially less inhibited about what others may think about their actions. These traits will serve a team or business well in a crisis. They are less likely to help facilitate a solution to a customers problem requiring compassion or empathy.


4. The Pursuit of Better. Realistic self-doubt is the engine of development. In his book, ‘Confidence: The Surprising Truth about how Much You Need and how to Get it’, Organizational Psychologist, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic concludes, self doubt, “is a motivating force, because being dissatisfied with yourself is the best reason for wanting to improve”. It makes sense that if you are aware that you have limitations – perhaps you are anxious about that pitch or having a tough conversation – you understand and accept there are things you need to practice and improve.


Next time someone suggests that you adopt the value of fearlessness suggest you’d rather embrace your inner critic instead.

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