Send in the Clowns? Maybe Not!
Clown sightings have predominated U.S. news in the past few months. Scary clowns have popped up in almost every region of the U.S. prompting a frenzy of fear. According to CNN, "People have been arrested. Schools have sent out warning letters. Social media is crawling with creepy, homemade clown videos. And it came up at the White House media briefing this week." There have been organized "clown hunts" to try to find the perpetrators. The hysteria has prompted even the likes of Stephen King to tweet out a call to chill about the matter and recognize clowns for what they are supposed to be... cheerful caricatures to make us laugh.
There are many reasons one might fear a clowns face, especially if it does not reflect the origin of the painted character which was originally created for entertainment and comic relief. Unfortunately through history the clown face has also been employed as a disguise to lure as well as entertain. John Gacy in the 1970's posed as Pogo the Clown. A mass murderer, the idea of clowns as potentially "creepy" was solidified with the discovery that in addition to being a clown at children's parties Gacy was in fact killing. Thus trusting the recent pop up clowns, especially since they are so out of context to a comedic image and /or event, is challenging.
So what does this sudden fear phenomenon tell us about fear itself? About us? Charles Dickens, the renowned English writer identified what we really fear in the image of a clown. "What fascinates us is not the exaggerated painted face, or the dull face of a man underneath. It's the tension between the two. The dissonance between what is and what appears to be." The accentuated dissonance of Gacy as a loveable entertainer yet in reality a murderer made the case even more difficult to hear about and comprehend. The recent creepy clown image rather than the funny, loveable clown we know from childhood illustrates the tension between what is supposed to be laughable, with elements that are downright scary. Therein lies the reason the hysteria witnessed due to these sightings is to many a real fear.
In the interpersonal aspect of our professional lives we often feel dissonance between what "is and what appears to be" as Dickens sited, that turns into fear. The tension between how we see or promote ourselves and how others might see us when we are asked to interpersonally interact in ways we do not feel competent creates tension. This tension and the resulting dissonance can create real fear.
What are examples of interpersonal situations at work that can create dissonance?
Anything that stretches our interpersonal abilities and/ or comfort level. Here are a few:
You are asked to manage someone who was formerly a peer, and do not see how they will see you as a leader when you were their colleague
You are leading a change you do not fully believe is in the best interest of your department yet you must promote it
You are asked to give a board presentation and you know your presentation style does not reflect your technical ability
You are very competent in your job, but you are asked to entertain a client and you know you struggle with small talk and informal interactions
There have been many theories cropping up why we all of a sudden have clowns as the press states "running amok." Folklore about clowns luring and chasing children feels as if it is validated in these sightings. Viral marketing is another explanation - it has been used before to get people talking and creating a buzz for someone to capitalize on a movie or product. Social media fads and alternate reality games provide a possible reason. Or maybe there are just a range of people nationwide who have taken to perpetuating the sightings by dressing up as clowns. We do not know, and the dissonance the creepy clown image creates continues accelerating mistrust and fear.
There are many interpersonal interactions at work we fear due to the dissonance they cause. The possibility of feeling exposed, that we will not measure up with the expectations someone has of us due to the job or role we hold when asked to interact interpersonally. A disconnect between how we appear in one context and how we are perceived in another. The potential "fears" wrapped up in our interpersonal interactions are endless. We do not however have to let these fears escalate and "run amok" with our careers.
The dissonance and fear the creepy clown image and sightings elicit leave us as a general population unclear as to how to alleviate them. Luckily the interpersonal elicited fears we hold professionally are far easier to address and dispel.
The only way to combat fear is to identify it accurately and get specific support. Identification requires asking ourselves "what is creating this feeling of dissonance for me?" Once this is identified we can address the issue and find support. When it comes to the interpersonal nature of our professional lives, support comes in the form of skills. And skills are readily available and research proven.
If we acquire the appropriate interpersonal skills, the dissonance and tension disappear, and our professional fears truly become false evidence appearing real.
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