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Fear of Failure

(posted: November 19th, 2012)

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts in which we talk about various facets of fear, how it impacts the workplace, and how (and why) we as leaders can change fear into trust.

Failure, as all successful people know, is an integral part of the path to success. Fear of failure - an unwillingness to accept and learn from mistakes - hobbles the growth and creativity of a team. Make failure a tool for growth and your teams, and your bottom line, will flourish.

''Who Says I Can't Be Perfect?

Leaders are high achievers. Our drive and ambition, combined with big dreams and passion, create the perfect conditions for great success. We know what we want, how to make it happen, and waste no time in going after it. Many highly motivated people also strive for another, less desirable, goal:


We want to exceed expectations, make our work stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, and leave no room for criticism.

Many of you may be thinking, "I don't see the problem. Wanting to be perfect isn't terrible. It can help us produce quality work and excellent leadership." Pursuing excellence is one thing. Striving for perfection can lead to one's downfall.

"At its root, perfectionism isn't really about a deep love of being meticulous. It's about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success."

Michael Law, author

The thing about perfection is this: it isn't attainable. Most of us would say we agree with this, but do we live it?

The truth of the matter is many of us conduct ourselves so as to never make a mistake. We never want to be seen as inadequate, incompetent, or, even worse, a failure.

Fear of the Fall

Failure is intimidating. It is often difficult for us to admit to our failures and mistakes, because failing feels like a reflection on our character, on who we are. Too often we don't see it as just a mistake, we see it as an insurmountable, personal failure.

We must begin to realize making a mistake is an opportunity to grow.

"One who fears failure limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again."

Henry Ford

Trusting Enough To Fail

The reason many of us fear failure so greatly is due to the absence of trust. As Patrick Lencioni discusses in "The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team", lack of trust causes team members to conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another. When team members and leaders don't feel comfortable showing weakness or admitting mistakes, teams suffer great losses in terms of:

  • opportunity for growth
  • ability to excel
  • maximum creativity
  • optimal results
  • profit

Overlooking mistakes means overlooking opportunities for excellence.

Patrick Lencioni's "The Trouble With Teamwork" talks about vulnerability-based trust. To develop vulnerability-based trust members of a cohesive, functional team must learn to acknowledge:

  • mistakes
  • weaknesses
  • failures
  • needs for help

Recognizing and addressing these elements as a leader creates an environment in which fear of failure is eliminated. Team members are not afraid to make mistakes when they realize they will not be blamed or rejected. This realization allows teams to take greater risks and further innovations.

For more on leadership and trust, read my blog post here

Leading The Way

How can I grow from this experience? What happened to cause the mistake? What can I do better next time? What can I learn from this experience?

Good leaders know this one truth: failure leads to success.

When you talk with the most successful people, they will tell you that failure was an important part of their ultimate success, and that it was often failure that kickstarted their best idea, or forced them to reinvent themselves. Embracing failure allows innovation to take place, progress to be made and employees to grow.

"Failure happens all the time. It happens every day in practice. What makes you better is how you react to it."

Mia Hamm, groundbreaking women's soccer champion

To create a workplace culture where people are allowed to fail and learn from it, where they don't have to worry about being blamed or shamed for making mistakes, leaders need to set the example. The focus of any failure should be what happened, not who did it, and how do we use it to grow. As a leader, it is important to:

  • model what it looks like to admit to failure
  • deal with the situation
  • learn from the mistake, and
  • move forward

Understanding the failure happened as a result of something that occurred within your team is important. Learn from the mistakes that are made, move forward, and don't ignore the fact that your team is not perfect. Learning from mistakes does not necessarily mean that it will never happen again.

"Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly"

Robert F. Kennedy

What's Next?

Realize and actively live out the truth that perfection is not an option. Recognize that if you or your team hold the belief that you are perfect you're only fooling yourself. Further, you're cheating yourself out of an incredible opportunity to grow.

Challenge Yourself
  • What are best practices you have implemented to create a trusting environment?
  • What is your experience with perfection?
  • How do you turn failure into a learning experience for your team?
  • What are benefits of learning to fail well?

Stay tuned for the fifth post in our series on Fear and its impact in the workplace.

Part I - The Ugly Four-Letter Word: Fear

Part II - Fear of Conflict

Part III - Fear of Commitment

Part IV - Fear of Failure


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