Fear of Failure is the Big Problem, not Failure Itself

by Soren Kaplan

Fear of Failure is the Big Problem, not Failure ItselfAt many companies, there’s a lot of room for lip service, but little for real failure.  We hear the catch phrases over and over:  failure is necessary for success, we must fail faster to succeed sooner, and so on.  But as soon as the possibility of actual failure arises, suddenly all those comforting clichés fly out the window. A lot of big companies know that fear of failure is the biggest problem when it comes to fostering innovation:

  • The large Indian conglomerate, Tata Group, gives out an annual award for the “best failed idea.”  The goal is to recognize and reward failures since without them, successes would be impossible
  • Pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, hosts “failure parties” where employees come together to share their stories of failure and discuss what they learned from them.
  • In order to encourage risk taking, Facebook posts signs around the office that say things like “Done is better than perfect” and “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

The deeper source of the problem of failure isn’t necessarily the failure itself but rather the fear of failure before it even happens. Fear of failure keeps many people from taking a step into the unknown.  And when we’re afraid we’ll fail, we can start doing some pretty unproductive things, including not even trying in the first place, or giving up part way through whatever we’re doing – which constitute real failure.

At a deeper personal level, it’s all about control.  If we believe we control something, we usually don’t experience fear since that thing is predictable and its future outcome is clear.  When we feel out of control, even just a little bit, that’s when the fear of failure infuses itself into our mindsets and decisions.

Leaders who face the fear of failure head on – and who help their teams and organizations do the same – are most prepared to use set-backs as springboards to success. And as a result, they learn to overcome their fear of failure which leads to greater overall risk-taking.  A Harvard University study on the impact of fear on decision-making, for example, found that fear creates pessimism, which leads to risk-averse behavior.  This same dynamic occurs on a widespread scale when the stock market falls and investors sell at the bottom to “get out” in order to regain a sense of certainty.  So, the moment we experience uncertainty (innovation anyone?) the cycle begins.

Successful innovation involves taking action in the face of uncertainty, seeing results, learning from them, and modifying assumptions and behaviors based on these results.  Even when the results are “negative” (e.g., failure) the goal is to persist using the insights gained from the experience.  Such an approach creates a sense of progress where positive results can be celebrated and set-backs can be seen as learning opportunities.  This mental model feeds optimism and inspires further action, which results in the type of optimistic persistence required to weather the tough times and push innovation forward.

The innovation process – especially when you’re going for breakthroughs – is typically chock full of ambiguity and uncertainty.  And the fear of failure is a natural reaction to these conditions.  Experiencing fear of failure can be worse than the actual failure itself, since it can prematurely stop us dead in our tracks.  This is the biggest danger – giving in to our fear and allowing it to keep us from moving forward. Sure, we might avoid a crushing setback by doing so. But we’ll also miss out on the chance to learn from that failure and use it as spring board to something greater.

image credit: datingopedia.com

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Fear of Failure is the Big Problem, not Failure ItselfSoren Kaplan is the author of Leapfrogging and a Managing Principal at InnovationPoint LLC where he advises start-ups and also consults to Cisco, Colgate, Disney, Medtronic, Visa, and others larger firms.  He led the internal strategy group at HP and is an Adjunct Professor within the Imagineering Academy at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands.  To learn about the book Leapfrogging or contact Soren visit www.leapfrogging.com

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