7 Sep 2017

By Marc Wilson
Marc is a partner at Global Advisors and based in Johannesburg, South Africa

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    We tend to characterise insecurity as what we see in overtly fragile, shy and awkward people. We think that their insecurity presents as lack of confidence. And often we associate it with under-achievement.

    Sometimes we might be aware that insecurities can lie behind the -ias, -isms and the phobias. Body dysmorphia? Insecurity about attractiveness. Racism? Often the need to find security by claiming superiority, belonging to group with power, a group you understand and whose acceptance you want. Homophobia? Often insecurity about one's own sexuality or masculinity / feminity.

    So it is often counter-intuitive when we discover that often behind incredible success lies – insecurity! In fact, an article I once read described the successful elite of strategy consulting firms as typically 'insecure over-achievers.'

    Insecurity must be one of the most misunderstood drivers of dysfunction. Instead we see its related symptoms and react to those. 'That woman is so overbearing. That guy is so aggressive! That girl is so self-absorbed. That guy is so competitive.' Even, 'That guy is so arrogant.'

    How is it that someone we might perceive as competitive, arrogant or overconfident might be insecure? Sometimes people overcompensate to hide a weakness or insecurity. Sometimes in an effort to avoid feeling defensive of a perceived shortcoming, they might go on the offensive – telling people they are the opposite or even faking security.

    Do we even know what insecurity is? The very need to be anything, to demonstrate something – or to show we are not something – is often an insecure act. We are all insecure in some way or another.

    Think of what we stereo-typically tend to think of as strength: confidence, lack of emotion, excellence. Often traits ascribed to masculinity. So much so that many women in business describe feeling pressure to adopt masculine traits to be successful. We glorify these traits to such an extent that we spark many of the insecurities and dysfunctions.

    Understanding that insecurities can be the drivers behind dysfunction is important. Without this, those on the receiving end might react to the dysfunction and attempt to manage or confront this without ever get to the underlying issue. While it should be beyond the requirements of most leaders and team members to be counsellors and psychologists, potential and time can be wasted losing employees and team members based on misunderstanding the cause of their behaviour.

    Understanding insecurity is also important when dealing with clients or potential clients. Employees might be forced to address the symptoms of deeper underlying insecurities – it is difficult to get the same response from a client.

    Knowing that some deeper insecurity might be behind a behaviour does not excuse it and does not prevent team members / leaders / family members from objecting to it and highlighting the effects of it. It does not require that you become a counsellor and help fix the underlying issue. But understanding can allow you to program your interactions to be more successful as a result of putting a person at ease, drawing on their strengths and avoiding shaky ground.

    Should you be in a position to coach somebody (coaching requires permission), you may be able to help them realise that self-awareness is the bedrock of self-development and growth. Through this perhaps they might begin confronting insecurities underlying their behaviours.

    Understanding the role of insecurities is clearly even more essential in your own development. It takes great bravery and strength to peel back the layers of your own patterns and behaviours to uncover the truth about your insecurities, why they exist and how to manage them. At the very beginning of this is understanding our own behaviours and patterns – a task in itself.

    Dealing with our insecurities is more than a noble task. Our insecurities cost us experiences, relationships, happiness and ultimately being everything we can be.

    For many attributes, having almost no insecurity might be our goal. But insecurity is a spectrum. To have no insecurity would demand true arrogance bordering on psychopathy. At the other end of the spectrum would be debilitating phobia. We would probably wish to be content enough with our appearance to be confident and happy – but concerned enough to make the best of it and present ourselves in our best light. We might want to be confident enough of our ability to achieve our goals – yet not overconfident so that we lack effort and preparation to achieve our best.

    Fear-of-failure is a common driver of overachievers. For some such a fear can be debilitating and result in procrastination and underachievement. Overachievers harness the fear to ensure they drive themselves towards a result – often obsessively. Achieving success with a balanced confidence reflects finding a good spot on the fear-of-failure insecurity spectrum.

    At the very least we owe it to society to address those insecurities that result in discrimination and discomfort with other people. We owe it to those around us to manage those insecurities that result in the dysfunctions that affect them and our teams. And we owe it to ourselves to confront those insecurities that prevent us from being the best versions of ourselves.

    Business and leadership in general is changing. Increasingly the 'success' of the alpha-pack leader is being questioned. Qualities such as sincerity, empathy and even vulnerability are being identified as qualities of better leaders.

    This should turn our view of strength on its head. The typical alpha-pack leader (male or female) has grown up learning that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness. It takes true strength to confront yourself and share your own failings and insecurities with others – the very reason it can be inspiring and create better teams and relationships.

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