Helping Employees Overcome Fear

Imran Sheikh

Head of Design (Product / UX / Marketing) at Chartboost (A Zynga company)



I was managing a Product Manager at one of my previous companies who expressed some interest in a vertical adjacent to her own. She was afraid, not sure if she could do it. Sometimes, I notice an employee with ambition and potential beyond the duties of their current role - an Engineer who may have talent as a data analyst, under the right circumstances. If they do not follow these interests, they will never realize this potential and achieve what they would have the power to achieve otherwise. Building your employees up in this way makes them more valuable, and increases the value that they stand to offer you and your company.

What is the worst that could happen? Many of my reports have a lot riding on their paychecks. I find that when an employee has a family or is in a situation where their financial needs are not being met, they avoid upsetting their position. People fear failure when their futures are uncertain.

Actions taken

Part of being a manager that others can rely on involves rewarding performance with safety within the company. An employee who is constantly worrying about a position that should not, logically, be in jeopardy is one who is distracted and distant from the work that they were hired to do for you in the first place.

I try to make this ethos clear to my team at every opportunity possible. My message to her: if you never try, you will never know. Failure is not the end of the world; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, at least we tried. It’s a mental step. If you’re part of a team, that’s the whole point: safety. I let her lead some of our team meetings, creating a new pattern. My mindset is that if a person needs help, be there in the meetings until they are able to do it on their own. Now, she leads the vertical by herself.

Another Product Manager that I oversaw was very customer-focused; I directed him to pay more attention to strategy. Taking some time, even once a month, to check in with your reports with honest clarity, just to see if they’re okay.

I have a simple strategy for helping my team step into more challenging roles: if it works, it’s for you. If it doesn’t, I’ll take the blame. I’ve had managers do the same for me. It gives you a level of confidence. I’m not here to find a pain point.

Lessons learned

  • People are afraid for their jobs, which makes them more risk-averse. People need to have constant learning and sharing.
  • Keep track of peoples’ personal roles. As a leader, you manage an employee's strengths, weaknesses, and expectations. Should I invest? Where would this person’s talent be more useful? Are you mentoring your people or not? How can we get them ready for their next job?
  • Building a team means giving them the confidence that they need to grow. If you have one employee in analytics expressing an interest in data science, and another in the opposite position, cross-functional collaboration becomes possible.

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Imran Sheikh

Head of Design (Product / UX / Marketing) at Chartboost (A Zynga company)

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