Fear of Failure Is Dangerous to Your Job Health

Photo of Crossroads: Success or Failure

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Fear of making a mistake can cripple even the most talented leader‘s efforts to succeed. It stifles creativity and discourages risk-taking, while upping the stress ante and creating a tense work environment for everyone within a department or team.

Imagine how many inventions and technological innovations would never have become realities if the people who came up with them had been afraid to fail!

Anyone who ever did anything truly great failed first. Failure is part of trying. It will happen. What matters is how you deal with it. Famous failures include Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and Michael Jordan. They prove that failure can be a powerful teacher that leads to success.

Similarly, corporate trainer Ramesh Menon reminds us: “Worry can kill—no wonder the word comes from the Anglo Saxon word weirgan, which means to strangle, to choke until there is no life left.”

Worrying about making mistakes is counterproductive, zaps your energy, and leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. You may irrationally fear that you’ll never been good enough, and that you’ll face the disapproval of others or other negative feelings if you‘re less than perfect. This can cripple you, especially as you move up the career ladder and take on new responsibilities that are outside your comfort zone.

Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large for Psychology Today and author of A Nation of Wimps, describes perfectionism as “a steady source of negative emotions.” She explores how our performance should not be a measure of our self-worth. “Rather than reaching toward something positive, those in perfectionism’s grip are focused on the very thing they most want to avoid—negative evaluation,” she writes. “Perfectionism, then, is an endless report card; it keeps people completely self-absorbed, engaged in perpetual self-evaluation, reaping relentless frustration and doomed to anxiety and depression.”

I encourage managers and leaders to write down their fears. This forces them to acknowledge these anxieties and dissect the faulty logic that may paralyze them. Consider keeping a journal that tracks what’s bothering you and how you react to missteps. Does one type of error bother you more than another? Are you better able to recover from a mistake when you‘re having a good day? What, exactly, are you feeling? Humiliation? Embarrassment? Depression? A sense of even greater fear? How can you use reality checks to weaken the hold these feelings have on you?

You need to practice being unafraid. Perform at 100 percent of your capacity, and recognize that mistakes will still occur in rare circumstances, despite your best efforts to prevent them. Needless to say, if you make huge errors regularly, you may be in way over your head.

If you‘re a leader or manager who is plagued with chronic anxiety and unrealistic perfectionism, you must learn to defuse the fear time bomb so you can succeed at the work you love. You’ll need to fire your inner critic, says productivity consultant Julie Morgenstern, as well as discover whose critical voice is really living inside your head.

Avoid looking at errors as black-and-white, or all-or-nothing-at-all scenarios, she advises. A recovering perfectionist, she confessed her own fears and doubts in O, The Oprah Magazine. “When I first started speaking professionally, I knew when I had given a bull’s-eye performance. I felt that I was ‘hanging ten,’ riding the waves of the audience’s emotions. When I didn’t hit that mark, I was disappointed and mad at myself.”

Audience feedback was never as harsh as Morgenstern’s personal assessment of her performance; in fact, her scores were always high, but she thought attendees were just being nice (See how we torture ourselves?).

Jacket image, Seven Disciplines of a Leader by Jeff WolfWhen Morgenstern sought counsel from a highly experienced speaker, he told her that hitting at least a 7 out of 10 with audiences would suffice, and that no one hits the mark every time. If you continue to struggle with severe anxiety, consider seeing a psychotherapist or setting up sessions with a qualified and objective executive coach.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Seven Disciplines of A Leader by Jeff Wolf. Copyright (c) 2015 by Jeff Wolf. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

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