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The best performers are able to push past the perceived limits of their potential, but the higher they rise on the career ladder, the more susceptible they become to scrutiny. They often fall prey to an anxious state the author calls fear of people’s opinions. FOPO is a hidden epidemic and may be the single greatest constrictor of individual and collective potential.
Concern about what others think is an irrational, unproductive, and unhealthy obsession—and a big contributor to the general anxiety people feel at work. This article discusses the causes of FOPO and how to help your employees break free from it.
In a golf skills competition, who do you think would experience the most performance anxiety: a PGA tour professional, a local teaching pro, or a total amateur? Leslie Sherlin, a neuroscientist, and I sought to answer that question as part of a research program on psychological and physiological pressure. We devised a three-stage pressure test, measured each golfer’s neuroelectric activity and heart rate during each stage, and asked questions to better understand the mental strategies the golfers used during the tests.
Stage one was a low-pressure test. We scattered 18 golf balls around a green, and I accompanied each golfer individually and measured his psychological and physiological responses as he putted them into the hole. All the golfers demonstrated a slightly elevated heart rate and heightened brain activity. Rickie Fowler, the tour professional, made the most shots, holing 15 out of 18—but he considered 17 of the 18 good shots, based on how well he’d struck the ball. It was not the outcome that mattered to him but his own evaluation of his performance. “The way I think about golf is that I focus my attention on what’s in my control, not on the end result,” he told us.
In stage two, we turned up the pressure by placing cameras around the putting green. Fowler had an initial spike in heart rate and brain activation but quickly settled back down, with results similar to those in stage one. The amateur golfer had an increase in activation and performed slightly below the previous stage. Despite making fewer shots, he reported that the experience was “fun” and “exciting” and that he “felt like a tour pro.” The local club pro had a radically different experience. He was not accustomed to playing in front of cameras, and his heart rate spiked and stayed high for the duration of his turn. His results suffered. “I looked like a fool,” he said. “I’m a professional. I’m supposed to do better than that.”
In the final stage, the three golfers putted in front of the cameras, one another, and a live audience of more than 100 people in a competition to raise money for charity. The results were almost identical to the earlier stages. The professional golfer used his mental skills to lower his heart rate, block out external and internal noise, and regulate his emotional and physiological reactions. The weekend warrior viewed the experience as pure enjoyment, approached it with curiosity, and had nothing invested in the outcome. The club pro was the outlier. He putted poorly and exhibited obvious distress about it.
The higher we rise on the career ladder, the more susceptible we are to scrutiny and public opinion—which is why the lives of high performers are rife with fear of people’s opinions.
Why? The teaching pro was used to being “the expert,” so he felt that his identity was threatened, causing him to perform badly. The combination of the cameras, the crowd, and the greater expertise of the tour pro amplified his fear of what others—including Fowler, his favorite golfer—might be thinking about him. Compounding his anxiety: We held the event at his own club, so the live audience consisted mostly of people he knew. And since he wasn’t aware that his anxiety and negative thoughts were triggering the cascade of chemicals driving him into a state of fight, flight, or freeze, he couldn’t recalibrate. He had been thrust into survival mode. On a golf course. On a sunny, 76-degree day in Florida.
I call this anxious state fear of people’s opinions (FOPO). Among the organizations I’ve worked with, FOPO is a hidden epidemic and may be the single greatest constrictor of individual and collective potential. Concern about what others think is an irrational, unproductive, and unhealthy obsession—and a big contributor to the general anxiety people feel at work.
As a performance psychologist, I’ve had the privilege of working with extraordinary individuals and teams. I was on the sidelines when the Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII against the Denver Broncos. I sat in mission control when Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner made his record-breaking skydive from 24 miles above the Earth’s surface, free-falling at over 800 miles per hour. I was in the room with the CEO of one of the world’s largest tech companies when it set course to be the first enterprise organization to build a culture based on mindset, empathy, and purpose.
The best performers in the world push past the perceived limits of human potential and expand our notions of what’s possible. But the higher they rise on the career ladder, the more susceptible they are to scrutiny and public opinion—which is why the lives of high performers are rife with FOPO. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to build an environment in which employees at all levels know that they can speak and act without fear of alienation or embarrassment. That isn’t always easy in corporate environments driven by short-term performance.
In this article, I discuss what causes FOPO, what you can do to help your employees break free from it, and why a purpose-driven mindset outperforms performance-driven motivation on both an individual and a team level.
What Causes FOPO?
Fear of people’s opinions has always been part of the human condition. The craving for social approval made our ancestors cautious and savvy: Your place in the tribe—and your very survival—could be threatened if others thought you were responsible for a failed hunt. Today that threat response continually gets triggered even though our survival is no longer at stake. With the proliferation of social media and our overreliance on external rewards, metrics, and validation, the pressure to succeed is intense and FOPO is even more acute.
FOPO is an anticipatory mechanism that involves psychological, physiological, and physical activation to avoid rejection. It is also characterized by a hypervigilant social readiness and a relentless scanning of the environment in search of approval. In overvaluing what others might be thinking, we become highly attuned to signals—body language, microexpressions, words, silence, actions, and inactions—of potential rejection. FOPO is an exhaustive attempt to interpret what others are thinking in an effort to preempt a negative evaluation by them. It is not the actual negative opinion that is so problematic—it’s the fear of it. Though FOPO does not meet the criteria for clinical diagnosis, it creates significant distress.
Fear of people’s opinions shows up almost everywhere in our lives, and the consequences can be severe. When challenged, we protect our ego and surrender our viewpoint. We trade in authenticity for approval. We try to read the room, not out of benevolence but to curry favor. We laugh when the joke isn’t funny. We bite our tongue when someone says something offensive. We formulate our responses while listening to others. We pursue power and money rather than purpose.
It’s human nature to try to control others’ opinions and how they think about us, but in the desire for approval we give up control of our own lives. As Lao Tzu, the philosopher and reputed author of the philosophical text Tao Te Ching and the founder of Taoism, said, “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”
How Identity Affects FOPO
As the study with the club pro demonstrates, identity is one of the most fertile breeding grounds for FOPO. Identity is a subjective sense of self built on our experiences, beliefs, values, memories, and culture. Often derived in relationship to or comparison with others, identity provides a framework for better understanding our place in a complicated social world.
Identity draws from many aspects of us—race, gender, sexuality, relationships, family, job, interests, nationality, beliefs, religious practices, and group affiliations—but it cannot be defined by any one of those. It is also shaped by the roles that sit inside those broader categories. Priest. CEO. Mother. Pilot. Writer. Student. Athlete. Entrepreneur.
A performance-based identity means we define ourselves by how well we do something relative to others. No matter how well we perform by objective measures, our identity must be buttressed by continual external validation and hinges on the praise and opinions of others to fuel it. Developmental scientist and USC associate research professor Ben Houltberg, who has extensively studied the motivations behind the pursuit of excellence, says a performance-based identity is characterized by three negative expressions: a contingent self-worth, a looming fear of failure, and perfectionism. The exhaustive need to perform tears at the seams of well-being, relationships, and one’s own potential.
A healthier alternative is to cultivate a purpose-based identity. Purpose is an internally derived, generalized intention that has intrinsic value for you but is also bigger than you. It has a forward-looking orientation. Purpose becomes the filter through which we arrive at decisions, establish priorities, and make choices. Instead of asking ourselves “Am I liked?” or “Do people think highly of my work?” our reference point becomes “Am I being true to my purpose?”
The challenge for managers is that most people have performance-based identities. To reduce FOPO, managers must find ways to shift people’s identity from performance to purpose.
Foster Purpose-Based Teams
One way to begin that shift is to foster purpose-based teams. Research shows that the resulting individual and organizational rewards can be significant. Wharton professor Claudine Gartenberg, along with researchers from Columbia University and Harvard Business School, studied 500,000 people across 429 firms over the course of five years. They found that companies that clearly communicated their purpose to employees saw a positive impact on both operating and financial performance and forward-looking measures of success.
A separate study from BetterUp Labs, a consultancy comprising researchers from business schools, management consultancies, and industry, surveyed 2,285 professionals across 26 industries. It found that respondents who had a sense of purpose at work had higher productivity—yielding an average of $9,000 a year more in labor output—than counterparts who didn’t find any meaning in their work. They were also more likely to have received raises and promotions in the six months prior to the survey. The study also showed that participants would sacrifice, on average, 23% of their lifetime earnings—or about $21,100 a year until retirement—in exchange for work that gave them a sense of purpose.
Unfortunately, most managers are required to hit weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals—a relentless rhythm that leaves little time for purpose-building. Indeed, a short-term focus often leads managers to foster a performance-based team identity, which can be the quickest lever for achieving metric-based goals. But that is a shortsighted approach that ultimately leaves employees anxious, burned out, and less effective at their jobs. Of course, you shouldn’t—you can’t—completely abandon performance goals, but you must recognize the pressure that a performance-based identity puts on your people and how it negatively affects outcomes. By contrast, a purpose-based team identity can relieve stress and anxiety among team members, which will have a positive impact on achieving near- and long-term goals.
In my work, I’ve developed a process for fostering a purpose-based team identity. Begin with a frank conversation with your employees, making it clear that who they are and how they do their jobs have a significant impact on the culture. Explain the benefits of a purpose-based team identity and that you’re now going to evaluate them not just on performance but also on how well they embody the team’s purpose in their words and actions.
Next, work with them to collectively define the team’s purpose. The purpose has to genuinely matter to each individual, must affect everyone on the team, and must be future-oriented; it can’t be something the team will achieve today, tomorrow, or even in a year.
This is a moment for modern leadership. Use active-listening skills—ask clarifying questions, summarize what you’ve heard and felt, stay curious rather than critical, and so on—to help draw out the varied perspectives of the team. Be an engaged participant in the conversation, sharing your own thoughts and feelings.
At first, you’ll probably hear purpose being defined in terms of metrics, sales, revenue, praise from the CEO, or other external, performance-based validation. Guide the discussion to focus instead on finding the key value that links you all. That may be ensuring that everyone feels safe and heard, or it may be group accountability or a shared desire to provide excellent service to the rest of the organization.
Purpose-minded managers look beyond the metrics to determine if low-performing employees are contributing to the team’s overall performance in other ways.
Once you’ve established your team’s purpose, each time your employees experience FOPO, they will have a method for combating it. They can stop the repetitive, ruminative FOPO loop (What will they think of me?) and replace it with a measured response focused on the team’s purpose.
For example, if your sales team agrees that its purpose is supporting one another, the team’s measure of success shifts from quotas to collective support. Rather than obsessively thinking, I’m not as good a salesperson as my peers, a teammate wonders instead, Have I done everything I can do to help my coworkers meet their goals? The same goes for top performers. Rather than wilting if their performance lapses—which can happen for many, often external reasons— they can measure their success by how hard they worked to help new or low-performing employees learn and improve.
Building a purpose-based team identity can’t consist of just a single conversation unsupported by your actions as a manager. You may not want to discuss purpose at every team meeting, but every interaction—whether it’s a quarterly team review, a group happy hour, or a day-to-day check-in—should be conducted with your team’s purpose as the essential standard. Celebrate purpose-driven achievements. Highlight success stories that go beyond performance metrics. Encourage team members to imbue their work with meaning.
Foster Purpose-Based Employees
Team purpose is a great foundation, but if individual team members continue to define themselves by their performance, their identities will be built on a house of sand. How well we do at anything in life shifts and changes. Basing our sense of self on performance and the approbation that comes with it creates a petri dish for stress, anxiety, and depression.
The single greatest bulwark against FOPO is having a clear sense of self and a strong purpose. For people with a purpose-based identity, it’s not other people’s praise that drives them, it’s the meaning of what they’re doing and the impact they can make. Those are two very different types of fuel: One is sustainable, and the other will burn you out.
Each individual’s purpose is critical to the team’s success. As a manager, you should regularly meet one-on-one with your employees. Ask them questions like: What is your motivation for doing this job? What inspires you to work your hardest? What vision do you hold for your future? Unlike the team’s purpose, your employees’ answers may be concrete, such as saving to buy a home or sending a child to college. The answers should not sound like this: “I want you to think I’m a really hard worker so that you’ll give me a big bonus.” Even though the bonus will contribute to paying for the home or college, the emphasis must be on the goal and not on your opinion of the employee’s performance.
In your conversations, you must make sure that each individual’s purpose is in alignment with the team’s collective purpose. Tell your employees that you will support them in fulfilling their purpose but that you will also challenge them to carry out their roles in ways that further the team’s purpose and the company’s overall performance goals. Again, ongoing conversations are essential: You can’t just have one meeting about purpose and never mention it again. It must be present in every interaction.
When Performance Suffers
You may encounter an employee who embodies a purpose-driven mindset but for some reason isn’t performing the way you need them to. Performance-minded managers would most likely move this person off the team despite their adherence to team values. Purpose-minded managers look beyond the metrics to determine whether low-performing employees are contributing to the team’s overall performance in other tangible or intangible ways.
I was the sports psychologist for the 2016 U.S. women’s Olympic volleyball team. The team’s head coach, Karch Kiraly, was concerned that Courtney Thompson’s height (she’s only five-feet-seven-inches tall) would limit the team’s performance. Thompson was about three inches shorter than the average player at her position, and in a sport full of tall athletes, every inch matters. But Kiraly, a two-time gold medalist as both a player and a coach, knew that there was more to his team’s performance than size and strength.
When we studied Thompson’s performance in relation to the team’s performance, the sports-science data showed that, statistically, she made everybody around her better. Her focus was never on individual goals but, rather, on improving the performance of everyone on the team. By making unselfish plays, by making decisions that put her teammates in the best position to win, she may not have had the metrics of an elite performer. But she had a purpose-based identity, which she exemplified in her play. In doing so, she made her team better in terms of both performance and purpose.
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On the surface, the objective of competition—whether in sports or in business—is to win. But those individuals or organizations that consistently win over a long period of time tend to be driven by something more than the podium or the stock price.
As a manager, it’s your responsibility to speak about and demonstrate your team’s purpose at all times. Remind your employees that it’s not the evaluation of other people that must drive them; it’s the meaning of what they’re doing and the potential to achieve what they can control.
Editor’s note: Michael Gervais is the author, with Kevin Lake, of The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying About What People Think of You, from which this article is adapted.