Of all the challenges leaders face, none is more pervasive yet hidden than fear of failure. Leadership is a tough job that requires courage. Doubts, insecurities and fears make organizational challenges more difficult and, in extreme cases, insurmountable. No matter how confident you may appear, anxiety can occur at pivotal times in your career.
Fearful leaders can debilitate their organizations’ ability to function, compromising productivity, decision-making, strategic thinking and employee management. They’re likely to experience issues in their personal lives, as well.
Fear of failure can sometimes be suppressed, but when this proves impossible, you can no longer ignore it.
Recognize the Signs
Fear of failure has several telltale—and observable—signs. You’re likely to set your ambitions too low or too high, explains entrepreneurship expert Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012).
Goals set too low reflect a lack of self-confidence and a fear of achieving normal benchmarks, he explains in a 2012 CNN.com article. Conversely, goals set too high serve as a mask for your insecurities. Failure is expected, as no one could possibly achieve these targets—which means there shouldn’t be any criticism.
A second sign of fear of failure is a tendency to procrastinate. If you can put off achieving a goal, you can also delay the dreaded failure. Look for unfounded hesitancy, second-guessing and finding “reasons” to delay or alter plans.
Other signs of fear of failure include:
- A consistent pattern of indecision
- Anxiety over risks or change
- An excessive desire or attempt to control circumstances
- An inability to delegate or trust others to perform tasks “correctly”
- Perfectionism (often leading to micromanagement)
A childhood history of pain or suffering can lead you to anticipate the worst and expect negative outcomes. Growing up around fearful people also plays a role, as does a lack of positive adult role models. Children in these environments struggle to learn optimism and perseverance.
Traumatic experiences framed by failure can train your mind to distrust life in general. Past humiliations and rejections can scar one’s spirit to the point of dismay and fear.
Placing too high a value on a specific goal transforms it into an unrealistic objective. This can distort reality to the point of obsession and magnify the possibility of failure.
Perspective Is Everything
While fear may not be completely eliminated, it can be overcome, Kelsey notes. A major shift in perspective is required.
Begin by recognizing that no one is immune to failure. Coming to grips with fear, understanding that it’s real and knowing if it’s affecting your leadership (and life) are steps in the right direction.
But many fears are unhealthy, including the fear of failure. It’s perfectly OK—and, in fact, advisable—to name it for what it is and devise strategies for dealing with it. It’s admirable to watch someone admit a fear and make the decision to address it. It’s painful to watch someone deny or hide behind a fear, allowing it to take over. Such fears are seldom secret.
Another positive shift in perspective is recognizing that people survive failures all the time. Failure is really not the black cloud some believe it to be. It’s rarely the final blow. Life goes on. If you worry about other people judging you, your fears are likely overblown. Everyone has experienced failure at one time or another, so it tends to make us less critical of others.
Failure actually has intrinsic benefits. We learn and grow through failing. Wisdom, work ethic, strength and self-improvement are seldom attributable to a continued string of successes. There’s no better way to discover your strengths and weaknesses than through failure’s lessons. People admire humility and openness, which engender trust.
Fear: Name It, Claim It, Reframe It
Several process-oriented changes can lessen the effects of failure or reduce its likelihood. In general, conquering fear is a process of naming it, claiming it and reframing it.
- Assess the possible outcomes of a given situation. Make a list of the general causes and probabilities of each outcome. Most of the time, the likelihood of success is greater than that of failure if you apply your best planning and management efforts.
- Recall past experiences where positive outcomes occurred in situations where failure was possible. A track record of positive results is not an accident. You devised plans and allocated resources that set you up for success. Sometimes, a fear of failure leads you to believe that doom is a random, come-out-of-nowhere strike of fate. In most cases, however, several unfortunate missteps must occur to generate a bona fide failure. Even if this sequence is initiated, you can make adjustments to counter it.
- Reflect on colleagues’ experiences. Even when failure hit them, did it do them in? Not likely. They kept going, adjusting, learning, growing and getting better at their jobs.
- Focus on the journey instead of fixating on the destination. We usually experience achievement in incremental steps, as we plan, adjust, correct and celebrate. Individual steps are easier to grasp and foresee, and failure is less likely as this process plays out. If failure becomes a concern, handle it incrementally, as well.
- Set smaller, achievable goals to build confidence and moderate risks. Raise the bar gradually to enhance self-assurance. Emphasize the positive aspects of each step, while correcting or adjusting, to minimize the negative aspects. Choose your areas of focus.
- Ask for help or advice, when necessary. You’ll feel more secure when trusted colleagues, mentors or coaches offer input and guidance. There’s no need to go it alone.