Fear of Learning


Image credit: aaronamat / 123RF

Guest post by Chip Bell

Fear is as personal as a fingerprint.  I have a daredevil friend whose idea of a fun Saturday afternoon is to ski off the top of a steep mountain after being transported to the peak by a helicopter.  The thought of that makes me break out in a cold sweat, and I am a former paratrooper!

What frightens one person is another person’s playground.  And, this is especially true in mentoring.

Peter Senge wrote in his groundbreaking book, The Fifth Discipline, “When we see that to learn we must be willing to look foolish, to let another teach us, learning doesn’t always look so good anymore…Only with the support and fellowship of another can we face the dangers of learning meaningful things.”

Most protégés enter a new mentoring relationship with a bit of anxiety. Appreciating the protégé’s angst is an essential first step to creating an atmosphere of trust.

Fear is a barrier to learning.

Fear is far more a liability than an asset where learning is involved. A testing, contentious learning environment may bring out the adrenaline, but it does not bolster aptitude. Fearful learners take few risks, and risk-taking is paramount for learning.

When protégés bring fear into a learning environment, they limit the depth and breadth of their growth. Great mentors are fear hunters. Invite your protégé to hunt fear with you, and together enjoy the bounty of your success.

1. Demonstrate humility. Building a relationship of trust requires the mentor showing humility – sincere compassion, authentic concern and total vulnerability. Humility is crucial in the mentor’s response to a fearful protégé because it communicates, “I am not your enemy.”  It begins with creating a connection that demonstrates genuine interest and obvious concern. Use open posture and eye contact. Listen to the protégé and, equally important, look like you are listening.  Select a hosting tone.  And, model the attitude you would like your protégé to assume.

2. Be empathetic.  Communicate a commitment to kinship and partnering. This says to the protégé that you are like the protégé—not above or below. It means using words that communicate compassion and a desire for a bond.  It shows you fully appreciate the impact the fear of the unknown may have on her or him. It is like saying, “I get it! I know just how uncomfortable this is. I am in tune with where you are.” It means listening to learn, not listening to make a point or to correct.  Deal with feelings before you deal with facts.

3. Use affirmations. Mentors sometimes approach protégés as though affirmations are rare and expensive gifts to be doled out parsimoniously. Somewhere they heard that too much praise could make a protégé lazy. This is a sad fallacy. William James, the great psychologist-philosopher, said it well: “The deepest craving of humans is the need to be appreciated.” Look for things to compliment; lavish praise with sincerity and enthusiasm.

4. Bolster high self-esteem. This means never buying into a protégé’s low opinion of him or herself. Although this may sound harsh, it can be a powerful gift. This subtle message in the mentor’s attitude will become self-fulfilling, and in time will help the protégé let go of the old self-view and assume a new feeling of worth. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.” (We are confident Ralph would use “person” if he were still with us!)


Chip-Bell-Managers-as-MentorsChip R. Bell is a customer loyalty consultant, a renowned keynote speaker and trainer, and the author of several bestselling books. His newest book (with Marshall Goldsmith) Managers as Mentors is available at Amazon.  He can be reached at www.managersasmentors.com.

Personal note from Jesse:  Managers as Mentors is a wonderful book – a clear and practical guide for making learning an easy, everyday activity. Read this to become the mentor you wish you’d had. Give it to your boss to get the mentor you want. Give it to everyone on your team, to create a learning organization.

6 comments to Fear of Learning

  • Hi Jesse

    Chip made several good points, fear is very individual, and the single biggest thing we need to fear is fear itself. Fear prevents us from doing some of the very things we need in-order to succeed and develop. And unless people can get over their fear of looking weaker than they are they will never take the opportunities available to learn and grow as an individual.

    The same can even be said for any group of people fear can keep them from taking actions to learn and develop and become better.

    • Robert…thank you for your comment! Even we consultants get into the fear trap. Sometimes we help our clients feel better about being weak instead of courageously help them become strong!

  • Hi Chip and Jesse

    There are so many ways to encourage people to reach their potential, but I’m a firm believer that words of affirmation and encouragement is one of the most powerful. As a young person, it took one person to say to me, “You are capable of doing something so much more than you’re giving yourself credit for” and it changed my direction in school. Instead of thinking I couldn’t, that unofficial “mentor” said to me, “Yes, you can.” Thanks for making that point.

  • Hi Chip and Jesse!

    This post rocks in so many ways!

    1. I appreciate the focus on how hard it is to learn when you feel fear, how humble to need to be to learn, and the the specific actions a leader or teacher can take to help to make that process a more positive experience. I’m sharing!

    2. I love the virtual synergy this week.
    Lolly Daskal had a post titled: “Get to know your fears -http://www.lollydaskal.com/leadership/get-to-know-your-fears-2/
    I had a crowd sourced post titled: What’s driving you: Fear or Wisdom? http://consultgiana.com/whats-driving-you-fear-or-wisdom/
    And now your post on The Fear of Learning!

    3. It is a delight to see both of you in the same space!

    • Thank you for your comment, Chery. Perhaps we leaders/mentors/teachers need to be active learners so we can remember to be empathetic. Rosabeth Moss Kantor was fond of saying, “Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach.”

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