Fear and Life Inside the Professional Services Firm

by | Culture, Prudence

Let’s take a little test about an unseen driver of your firm’s culture and performance.

I am going to give you a list of adjectives that describe you. When you get to one that puts a lump in your throat, makes you sigh, or triggers you to stop reading, mark it.

Here’s the list:

  • Incompetent
  • Uninformed
  • Weak
  • Unprofessional
  • Salesy
  • Over the hill
  • Slick
  • Selfish
  • Pessimistic
  • Unsuccessful
  • Unlikable
  • Unpersuasive
  • Careless
  • Cheap
  • Inarticulate
  • Pushy
  • Unoriginal
  • Subordinate
  • Unimportant
  • Closed-minded
  • Unsophisticated
  • Underperforming
  • Undifferentiated
  • Unfashionable
  • Insecure
  • Redundant
  • Follower
  • Tier 2
  • Out of the loop
  • Tactical
  • Undisciplined
  • Ignorant


Did you mark one? More than one? Which one bothered you the most? Did you anticipate the word you marked? Did you think of a word not listed? Did you see others’ faces pop into your mind? Take a breath and relax. You’re not alone. Most of us live in fear of being labeled with one of these undesirable words.

If we take the generally accepted definition of bravery as a quality which knows no fear, I have never seen a brave man. All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.

George S. Patton

Fear and Life Inside the Professional Services Firm

Professional firms attract some of the smartest, most talented people in the world. I have worked with Partners, Managing Partners, Directors, CEOs, Presidents, Industry Leaders, Office Leaders, Practice Leaders, CFOs, CMOs, CROs, and COOs in Chicago, New York, Paris, London, Germany, Toronto, Beijing, Bangkok, and Mexico City with MBAs, JDs, Ph.Ds., BSs, and BAs, from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Oxford, Insead, University of Chicago, and Kellogg, just to name a few, and every one of them is driven by a fear—or ten—on the list above.

We, as human beings, are frail creatures full of gifts, foibles, desires—and, mostly, fears. It really doesn’t matter what title, firm address, or degree you possess; human beings are pretty much the same. We are running from our fears. Ironically, we’re even afraid to admit that we are afraid. Our refusing to acknowledge our fear does not mean that the fear does not exist; it does not negate the fact that the fear is driving our lives, our behavior, and our firms’ performance. Isn’t it often the valedictorian who is afraid of being seen as stupid or who fears not being admitted to a prestigious college? Isn’t it the loveliest girl who thinks she’s unattractive? Or, the top athlete who fears to lose? Fear rears its ugly head when we sense injustice, perceive scarcity, responded with bias, feel judgment, or anticipate failure. It manifests as passive-aggressiveness, aggressiveness, defensiveness, withdrawal, revenge, power exploitation, bullying, belittling, or avoidance. Fear can be a great short-term motivator, but as a long-term motivator, it is cancerous.

Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.

 Brene Brown

Becoming aware of the fears and behaviors inside your firm

Let’s get real for a minute:

  • Have you ever bluffed your way through a client question because you didn’t want to say, “I don’t know the answer”?
  • Have you ever criticized a junior member of your team for having a better answer to a question from leadership than you offered because it looked like someone less experienced than you was smarter or more articulate?
  • Have you told a lie of omission to avoid confrontation?
  • Have you resisted selling or presenting a new service until you felt prepared to handle any possible question or objection because you did not want to look ignorant?
  • Have you ever felt threatened when you were left out of the loop on a business deal or not invited to an “important” meeting because it was a harbinger of your standing in the firm?
  • Have you ever felt “less than” because you went to a “state” school, Tier-2 school, or lacked a certain degree from the “right” prestigious school?
  • Have you ever felt “better than” for having gone to a prestigious school?
  • Have you felt insecure because your office had fewer windows, a lesser view, or less square footage than a “peer’s”? Better because your’s does?
  • Have you ever blown a gasket or criticized someone for a typo in a presentation, whitepaper, or client email?
  • Have you bought cars, watches, phones, suits, vacations, homes, etc. to “fit in” or appear successful?
  • Do you always have to speak first or last in a meeting?
  • Do you plan/rehearse what you will say “spontaneously” during leadership meetings?
  • Have you ever said, “I was wrong” or “I am sorry.” to a subordinate?


Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.

Albert Camus



As you think about the list of adjectives and answers to these questions, don’t judge yourself. Don’t try to change yourself. Don’t sidetrack yourself with your well-honed diversionary tactic of choice. Let the fear just be. Sit with it. Be aware of the fear as it arises. Observe it. When does it come? When does it go? What is really behind it? Whether or not we become aware of our fear, it goes on unabated, directing our behaviors. It is not until we become aware of our driving fear, accept that it is our constant companion, and own it does it fall away. When it does, we begin to live more fully and lead our firms more prudently.

First, we change ourselves. Then, we change the firm, both for the better.

He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Be prudent.

professional services culture

About the Author

Jeff McKay
Founder & CEO
Prudent Pedal

As a strategist and fractional CMO, Jeff helps firms set smart growth strategies in motion. He was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen. Learn more.

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