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Shaking off a fear of failure

Matt McAllister

Managers are usually thought of as being confident, decisive and self-assured. But irrational fears can stop some from reaching their full potential and hold others back from taking on management positions entirely. Matt McAllister learns more about mastering your mind

Fear is a natural human emotion – and a useful one. It alerts us to danger, protects us from threats and holds us back from taking unnecessary risks. Yet when a fear is irrational or envelops every other emotion, it can hold us back from achieving our full potential.

One common fear in the world of business (as in many other aspects of life) is the fear of failure. This can stop us from going for a promotion, prevent us from starting up our own business or make us indecisive. If left unchecked, it can impact on both our career goals and business performance.
Fear of failure is less common among leaders, because those with a fear of failure tend to not put themselves up for leadership roles

It’s a subject that Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You? and Being More Confident, has explored in depth. “Fear of failure is actually somewhat misnamed in my opinion, because in reality it’s a fear of the public humiliation failure will bring: the fear of trying, failing and being laughed at,” he says. “Fear of failure is less common among leaders, because those with a fear of failure tend to not put themselves up for leadership roles. Many opt for lower level jobs that they view as ‘less successful’. In fact, the most common trait of those with fear of failure is avoidance: of fear, of management, of ambition.”

However, Kelsey adds that many ‘High-FFs’, as he calls people with a fear of failure, do end up in middle management positions. It’s just that their fears stop them progressing further than that and can make them poor managers as their “fear-based responses lead them to paranoia”. This often means they’re poor delegators, defensive and quick to lose control – all signs of ineffective leadership.

Risk analysis

Avy Joseph, co-author of Visual CBT, argues the word ‘anxiety’ is a more accurate term than ‘fear’ as anxiety relates to unease over an imagined threat while fear relates to a specific one.

“Our emotions, thinking and behaviour are not provoked by the failure itself or by the possibility of failure, but by the way we think about that the risk of failure,” Joseph says. “At the heart of anxiety about failure are irrational and unhealthy beliefs about that risk. You think that you won’t be able to deal with and handle the failure if it does happen.”

Joseph says there are many ways that this anxiety over failure can manifest itself: a tendency to run away from risk; a reluctance to talk about contingency plans; procrastination; keeping yourself busy so you don’t have to contemplate thoughts of failure; or constantly seeking assurance from other people.

In the world of leadership and management, which requires having a clear vision and the ability to get others to follow you, such traits can be disastrous. And if you are in a management position of some kind, these traits can impact not only on you, but on your team and others you work with.

It’s why James Scouller, author of The Three Levels of Leadership, argues that ‘mastering your mind’ should be the first leadership and management skill that we teach people.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest thing we need to do to help leaders be the best leaders they can be, is to introduce them to the potential of mastering their mind,” he says. “This will help free them from the fears we all struggle with – the fear of failure and also the fear of being rejected or ignored.”

Deep rooted

Developmental psychology suggests that a fear of failure has its roots in childhood events. Kelsey says that negative events in childhood are hard-wired to never go away, though some people develop a fear of failure as an adult after traumatic experiences such as redundancy or a failed business. 

One common negative childhood event is an unhealthy emphasis on performance and success at an early age, adds Joseph. This can trigger anxiety that someone isn’t allowed to fail, which can carry on through adulthood. We may not even be consciously aware we have such fears and, if we are, we often don’t know where they stem from.

So bearing in mind that such thoughts are so deeply rooted, how can we possibly hope to overcome them? Attending a training course may not be enough. In fact, Scouller argues that too many companies send employees on courses that make little difference as they don’t address changing their way of thinking.

“Weaknesses are generally around psychology, so we need to introduce people into the idea that we can start to come into contact with what frightens you, learn what it is and let it go as early as possible,” he says.

How you approach these fears may depend on how deep-rooted those fears are. Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School and founder of Robertson Cooper business psychology consultancy, says that matching the individual with the appropriate support system is vital.

“There are a range of psychological therapies, counseling, coaching and the like, that can help,” he says. “If the fear was less profound and based on lack of experience or the culture the individual operated in, than mentoring or coaching could help. If an individual had a profound ‘fear of failure’, it would probably require either CBT or some of counseling alternative.”

CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) is the psychological treatment that examines how attitudes are formed and how they affect our mind and actions, and then tries to help us ‘reframe’ our minds. “CBT teaches people that they are responsible for their emotional, thinking and behavioural responses and that unhealthy personal beliefs sabotage goal achievement and healthy beliefs help in the pursuit of goals,” says Joseph.

Once we have understood our fears and accepted who we are, Kelsey argues that coming up with a 10-year plan can help us get beyond our disabling fears. To do this he says we firstly need to make sure we’re clear about our principles and then use the technique of ‘visualisation’ – picturing where we want to be in a decade’s time in great detail.

“The plan allows High-FFs to avoid their worst fear of taking bold steps with unknown outcomes,” he says. “With a well-worked out plan, they can now take very small steps with very certain outcomes, even if they take several attempts to achieve.”


But can someone who does have a heightened fear of failure ever lose their fear completely, even if they have had CBT or an alternative form of counselling? Kelsey says that “High-FFs” are like alcoholics, and are only ever recovering. Cooper agrees. “One never fully loses one’s fear of failure, but an individual can find a way of channelling this controlled fear into taking minor risks,” says Cooper. “This will grow as the person becomes more successful.”


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