Turning Down the Volume on Fear | Brunswick

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Turning Down the Volume on Fear

Dr. Pippa Grange has helped football stars calm their nerves before penalty kicks and coached CEOs to succeed in ways that aren’t soul-destroying. She talks with the Brunswick Review about finding purpose and managing fear.

The England’s men’s football [soccer] team had failed so consistently at penalty shootouts that it was unofficially diagnosed as suffering from a “penalty curse.” The heartbreaking losses, which spanned decades and tournaments, were attributed not to bad luck but rather players crumbling under pressure. That infamous curse was finally broken in the 2018 World Cup when England defeated Colombia in a penalty shootout—an achievement for which not only the players and the coaching staff were praised, but also the team’s psychologist, Dr. Pippa Grange.

As Head of People and Team Development at the Football Association, Dr. Grange worked to help England’s players better handle the stress that comes with playing for their country and better manage the fear that comes with taking a penalty kick.

She left the position with the Football Association in 2019, yet remains a sought-after coach on performance and culture as well as a leading expert on the force that so often undermines both: fear. 

In 2021 Dr. Grange published her first book, Fear Less: How to Win at Life Without Losing Yourself. The space between the title’s first two words is significant. “The goal isn’t to get rid of fear, that's not possible,” she told Brunswick recently. “Fear will always be there. It’s about how loud we allow it to be, how much room at the table it gets.”

It was a conversation intended to focus on fear—and it did, eventually. But a question about Dr. Grange’s role with an unconventional non-profit sparked a refreshingly honest reflection on finding purpose at work.  

Pippa Web

England players celebrate winning a penalty shootout against Colombia in the 2018 World Cup (photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Can you tell me a bit more about Right to Dream and what you do as its Chief Culture Officer?  
We’re a football organization designed to help young people, who might not have access to opportunities but have enormous talent, find a way to express their talent—whether that's on the pitch, as a leader, or academically. Our kids come into residential academies—we have one in Ghana, and we're about to open in Egypt as well and then Denmark—and they’ll be, say, ten years old. And we make a commitment to them for five years. Then they decide to either pursue an academic pathway to a U.S. college or high school with a football scholarship. Or they'll go on a path for our international academy to go pro. We support them emotionally, materially, financially.

And to give you a sense of what I do there, we actually just finished a project that I helped lead on designing purpose. Essentially, if you wanted to be an organization that helped its own people, its students, its athletes, and its own staff work purposefully—how would you work if you wanted to do that?

I think a lot of our clients would like to know how you answered that.
We tend to think of purpose as something terribly grand—that we have to make a massive contribution to a massive problem. But purpose is an orientation to what you do, rather than just a material set of activities. Your sense of purpose in life is entirely your own. It can’t be imposed on you. Someone can’t take a set of ingredients and throw them together and have it feel purposeful for you. It's very much a “felt” journey that’s intuitive, individual.

And for me, without being cliché, purpose is a process, not a place. It's about creating the conditions to nourish the possibility of somebody finding their very best self.  The more we are working and living in that kind of way, the more likely we are to find not just one thing, but rather a set of things, that hooks our passion and our motivation.

It seems the way most companies instill a sense of purpose is by having one and then hoping people are inspired by it. So what should they be doing instead?
I think we still have an attitude to people at work that’s … I mean, we still call it human resources, right? Every time I hear that phrase I cringe. There’s still that extraction mentality. “What can I get from you for £100,000 a year? How can I motivate you to do what I want you to do?”

Those are outdated; we’ve outgrown them. They diminish creativity. And for me, that's never going to access human motivation in its greater possibilities.

If an organization can think about the people who are working for it, with it, there's an interesting shift. Rather than, “I need that person to deliver X by Y,” it becomes, “How can I help that person really nourish their very best self?" Because you can't manipulate the psychology of the individual to do what you want them to do and expect that it's fully authentic or an ultimate expression of that person.

There's a brilliant book called Humanocracy that touches on this. How would we treat people more as human beings and trust that collectively the power of people feeling good and being interested in what they were doing would be such a massive quantum performance factor rather than trying to squeeze more out of our “human resources”?

If purpose plays a huge role in our working lives, so does fear. And it seems many of us are in a strange position with fear. Given the choice, none of us would want our lives to be limited by it. And yet our lives very often are limited by fear—and as you write in Fear Less, we do have a choice. That all seems a bit backwards.  
I think there's a few responses to that. Fear is inherent and natural. However brilliant we get at managing it, we will regularly feel or have the potential to feel fear. It's an absolutely necessary part of our human psychology. Fear’s just a warning signal. And when that warning signal comes on, we don't turn the hazard lights off quickly enough. In other words, fear is something that we have to respond to. And we quite often don't.

It's important to make the distinction between what I call “in-the-moment fear” and “not-good-enough fear.”

In-the-moment fear is if you were driving too fast into a corner and you have that prick of adrenaline—that’s a stimulus response to fear. The response system that generates fear stimulus response is the amygdala. It's part of our brain that has never had a full upgrade. We’ve developed the prefrontal cortex, learned to reason and grappled with the meaning of life, but the amygdala’s still operating on the old system to help us survive.

For that old-fashioned, in-the-moment fear, you can train yourself to manage it. There are tried-and-true techniques. This is what I do with penalty kicks, free throws, golf swings.

But then quite often we don't actually realize the role fear’s playing in our lives because it’s the other type: the “not-good-enough fear.” That’s very sneaky and pervasive. It shows up in distorted ways. It might be wanting to withdraw. Or anger. Or feeling critical, ashamed, or jealous. All of those things have fear at their root. But we don’t always see that.

You have to make an effort to step out and press pause and then make a different choice. And that's why in the book, I make that distinction between the stuff that you can do in a technique manner, and the stuff that's actually a shift in perspective.

Fear seems so deeply personal and individual, yet you highlight the role of other people and environments in overcoming fear. That it’s not just about us.
It’s important to realize fear isn't something that just happens within our own skin and mind. Fear is recycled and generated in the cultures we live in. We have powerful messages and narratives around fear. You have to intentionally break it, turn it down, step away from it. But we quite often don't.

Fear ricochets between people, for instance. If I point out something to you that gives you a little fear stimulus and you accept that and ricochet it back, it becomes an energy in the environment. And then that's shared and ricocheted and ping-ponged between people. And it just keeps growing. This fear isn’t a solid object. It's more like a fog that's just among us. And we don't really realize how thick it is.

So other people can magnify fear; but they can also help us reduce it.  The ability to be truthful, vulnerable about what you feel—that helps diminish fear, the sense of protection and intimacy. And by intimacy I mean realness and being able to show up without a mask on, not the kind we've come to understand that happens in families and between partners. A sense of psychological safety or belonging or identity.

You mentioned showing up without a mask on. A line of yours that stuck out to me is that “we're so often performing at life rather than living life.” Yet a huge number of high performers, as they’re often called, might wonder if that's such a bad thing.
History has shown that performing in that way can get you results. And I can't tell you how many CEOs or high-performing athletes I've worked with that have lived that way.

But the problem with it is that the cost is too high to the individual. So you can get a result, absolutely. You can continue winning like that. But there is too much rent to pay psychologically.

Because if you can never actually step out of that identity as a high performer, which can get really close to perfectionism, you’ll find that your joy is stolen, your experience of success is really vapid and quick. You’ve got to be back on the treadmill, in the gym, the next day. You can't achieve anything that feels complete.

So no doubt about it, you can win that way. But my argument is that the cost is too high. And it's unnecessary because you can win a different way.

I describe it as winning deep versus winning shallow. If you're winning deep, you're doing it for the sake of the adventure. You're winning to see what you've got, to test your mettle.

Winning deep is much more oriented to how I imagine some of the earlier adventurers, the athletes who I see now who genuinely seem to still enjoy it. It doesn't mean that there won't be high stakes or the response to high stakes. And it certainly doesn’t mean there's any less blood, sweat, and tears in it. But it's a different energy. It's not winning to avoid failing—that’s what winning shallow is.  

What I've learned over the last 20 or 25 years is that it's not an either/or proposition. It's not softness, warmth, soul, or grit, resilience, drive, high-performance. There's a sweet spot in the middle.

Before I read your book, the line I’d probably heard most often about fear was Marianne Williamson’s: “Our deepest fear is not that we are not inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond all measure.” It’s a line you praise in your book. But it seems one of the arguments you make is that one of our deepest fears is that we are inadequate—that “not-good-enough” fear. 
For me, it's not really contradictory. I think Marianne Williamson's saying we’re afraid of using our brilliance because just imagine being so luminous yourself that everybody could see you—how terrifying is that? I think she’s speaking to this truth that we hold ourselves back so much, we inhibit and restrict and constrain and conform, make ourselves more pedestrian and domesticated than we really are. And we do that because, “what if everyone can see and I'm not up to it?” That is hard-wired in us.

The two things we're most afraid of are death and abandonment. And our contemporary manifestation of abandonment is rejection. We’re afraid of standing out. And in that fear of standing out or being seen, we restrain so much. You weren't born feeling not good enough. You didn't feel not good enough as a four-year-old going to school. These are learned things.

I find it so fascinating that you're a renowned coach on culture and performance, and yet your book is peppered with words like soul, warmth, energy, connection. Those have long been stereotyped as “soft,” for lack of a better word, while elite performance has been linked with the discipline and sacrifice of a former Navy SEAL, let’s say.
I've done some work with the Royal Marines in the UK, actually, and their humanness when you scratch under the surface is profound. Because the toughest of the tough actually feel the same way whether they're in the C-suite or on the pitch. It's how much permission you have to say it and show it.

What I've learned over the last 20 or 25 years is that it's not an either/or proposition.

It's not softness, warmth, soul, or grit, resilience, drive, high-performance. There's a sweet spot in the middle. My argument is about the method to get to the win, not whether we get to the win. It's how do we get there and what does it cost you. And how much are you narrowing the available performance in front of you because you're so worried about doing it tough or sacrificing or limiting or constraining or hyper-masculinizing?

But I do think people are opening up to the fact that the very best of us is a much more nuanced, expansive idea than trying to be a GI Joe.

I had a conversation with a large business organization recently. They asked me to talk to 400 of their top international leaders about fear and performance and how you might win differently. There is a whole raft of neurological science to make the case, but there’s also so much evidence to back up the fact that winning deep does not have to come at the cost of your outcome.

It's just that the outcome doesn't saturate the whole thing with a narrative of conquest, battle, hero, survival of the fittest. We have to let go of the old story and invite some exploration around: “How else might we win?” Not whether we win, but how else we might do so.

What hope is there for changing that kind of hero narrative at work when most of us are still rewarded based upon whether, for lack of a better term, we've been heroic that year?
We often talk about the people and the organization as these two separate sets of organisms. But of course, the organization is run by people. And I think it’s going to take organizational leaders re-envisioning this, asking: What could it look like? Really digging into the question and recognizing it is not about just going to yoga at the end of the week or having a glass of wine or whatever it is that you do to unravel.  

And then engaging people right across the organization, because if you don't do that, everybody thinks it's lovely but nobody believes it's true. Nobody will give permission for it. You don’t actually behave differently.

You weren't born feeling not good enough. You didn't feel not good enough as a four-year-old going to school. These are learned things.

For someone who's been limited by fear for so long, who almost can't imagine a world without it, and who’s busy with a family and a career, what can they start doing today to begin that unravelling process?
I think it starts by saying the objective isn't to get rid of fear. That's not possible. Fear will always be there. It's about how loud we allow it to be, how much room at the table it gets. It's about having a sense of our own agency to choose that. And if it's too much, you turn it down. That's what we want to achieve. Not that we get rid of it. I think chasing that actually causes a lot of problems. It’s more, “I want to give you 50% less room in my life, fear, thank you very much. You’re not serving me.”

The method I talk about in the book is see it, face it, replace it.

When I talk about seeing it, let’s go back to the fog. Notice that fog. When you feel the discomfort of anxiety or shame or a bit of perfectionism, stay a little longer before you fix it or move away from it. Really understand it, be curious about it. “What do I actually feel here? What am I actually worried about? What is the thing that I don't want to say out loud?”

It might be, “I'm worried about looking like an idiot.” Or “I'm worried I’m not as good as they think I am.” Whatever that story is for you, stay longer, and explore that with yourself. It’s taxing but freeing.

Facing it is taking inventory. What does this cost me? I really encourage people to think about that in terms of lost opportunity rather than just the obvious ways it has impeded you. “What haven't I done that I might like to because I'm worried about not being good enough?”

And when you can put that picture together, it's an invitation to say, "How will I replace some of those things?"

You write that fear isn’t something we can just think or work our way through. That’s likely tough for people to accept who have built exceptional careers on their diligence and thinking.
It's not that you can’t think your way and effort your way through a problem. It's that that's not enough. My thesis around fear is that we're missing out on available resources, brilliance, possibility by not using our imaginations, by not venturing into the feeling zone to work out some of this stuff—most of what happens in our mental life comes from an unconscious place.

So it's not that it's only going to happen through rationality, reason, and prefrontal cortex and effort. And it’s not that it can only happen in the feeling space. It’s an “and.”

There’s more available to us. To be able to really spend time imagining how it might look if you were good enough, imagining how it might look or feel if you were doing that thing that you're afraid of failing at. Feeling it in the body, or through the body. What is the image when you're in that room full of people where you have that little shame spike or where you have that fear of not being good enough? What is the feeling of that in your body? Where do you imagine it sitting? What is the temperature? What is the texture and tone of that? Is it flooding you? Is it constraining and constricting?

There’s this whole world of resources that we're not accessing in how we respond to fear. And they’re so powerful.

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Edward Stephens is a Director and Senior Editor of the Brunswick Review, based in Dallas.