March 2017

Leadership Challenges: Fear of Failure

Of all the challenges leaders face, none is more pervasive yet hidden than fear of failure.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy

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.

Fears are normal emotions that emerge in times of crisis. It’s been said that courage has no benchmark unless one grasps the reality of fear. Fears are real, often strong and quite disruptive, but your response to them defines your leadership hardiness.

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.

Organizations rely on their leaders to set a vision; provide direction; and implement plans that instill trust, confidence and the performance needed to meet desired goals. Leaders must possess strength and determination to face these challenges and overcome barriers on the way to success.

The task of managing people, with their various motivations, strengths and weaknesses, can prove daunting. Organizational dynamics, rapidly changing markets and tough competition only add to leaders’ challenges.

Even heroes have fears, to some degree. But they do what’s required despite their fears, ultimately becoming stronger in the process.

Fear of failure can sometimes be suppressed, but when this proves impossible, you can no longer ignore it. You must deal with 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. Liken it to an attempt to swim the English Channel in rough seas: No one is expected to accomplish it, so we bestow admiration on those who try, yet fail.

A second sign of fear of failure is a tendency to procrastinate as an avoidance tactic. 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.

University of Ottawa psychologist Timothy Pychyl describes research that shows a direct inverse correlation between people’s sense of autonomy, competence, relatedness and vitality and their tendency to procrastinate in a 2009 Psychology Today article.

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)
  • An overriding fear of “things going wrong”
  • Obsessing over details
  • Making sure everything is “just so”

The Causes

Several factors contribute to developing a fear of failure. 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. The dire need to obtain something creates the illusion that life will be awful if the goal isn’t accomplished; the consequent failure becomes traumatic. This all-or-nothing perspective has a potentially crushing outcome, one to be truly feared.

Perhaps the common denominator for all causes of fear of failure is an overarching sense of purposelessness or worthlessness – or, as Pychyl describes it, a low sense of self.

Our culture often convinces us that losing face is to be avoided at all costs, adds Kelsey. Regardless of our background, nothing feels as hopeless as life without meaning. Rejection or humiliation from failure can prompt feelings of worthlessness. At this level of despair, we may choose an attitude of fear in an effort to prevent failure, but it backfires when fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perspective Is Everything

Living with a frequent fear of failure is a significant personal struggle. While fear may not be completely eliminated, it can be overcome, Kelsey notes. A major shift in perspective is required – something with which an experienced leadership coach can assist you.

Begin by recognizing that no one is immune to failure. It happens to everyone. 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. Fear is not always bad. Healthy fears allow us to respect and remain aware of potential hazards.

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. Others see you struggle, so hiding behind a fear doesn’t work.

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.

And while we’re on the subject, what exactly is a “failure”? Is setting out to achieve a worthy goal, applying your best efforts and coming up short the true definition? How does this compare to someone who does nothing or gives less than his best effort? Most of us would agree: Failure is the act of not trying, giving up or not caring. Perspective is everything.

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. Failure is often a more remote outcome. In many cases, a few simple actions can significantly reduce your chances of failure, making it less of a threat.
  • 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. In other words, failure rarely strikes out of the blue. It’s not that ominous.
  • 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. They may have experienced a dip, but they recovered in the long run – in some cases, actually improving their situations. This is not uncommon.
  • 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. Before long, you can manage greater opportunities and risks with more courage and confidence.
  • Ask for help or advice, when necessary. You’ll feel more secure when trusted colleagues, mentors or coaches offer input and guidance. They can help reinforce action plans and improve your chances of success. There’s no need to go it alone.

Successful leaders make failure something to be grasped and managed, not feared. You and your organization will enjoy greater success when you learn to master your fear of failure.


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