“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

In the second installment of this blog series we discussed learning from errors and how that improves operational effectiveness. Furthe we learned information in the brain is stored in a web of interconnected pieces which are related to one another and that the retention of this information is better if accompanied by strong emotions. In this third installment, we will focus on the inherent human fear of failure and how to build the bravery and courage needed to harness fear. This will help when learning new things. It will also help to become better leaders.

Why Do We Fear Failing?

Why do we fear failing? Simple, one-word answer, habit. In the first installment of this blog series we learned behaviors are reinforced through reward and punishment. Our fear of failure is a learned behavior from early in development and reinforced over and over again. When children first begin to play with others they want to be included socially in the group of peers. Success at the “skill” demonstrated and reinforced by the activity or game being played leads to inclusion and status. Failure leads to exclusion and a sense of vulnerability. This concept can also be applied to answering questions in school. Getting the “right” answer the first time is rewarded in school. Getting the wrong answer is punished by low grades, disappointment or scolding from teachers, and contempt and mockery from peers. People want to do well, or better yet, to win. Winning makes one happy, losing makes one unhappy.

We do not generally fear failing to do something we do well. What we really fear is failing to do something right the first time. Which is a useless fear at best and ridiculous at worst, because nobody does anything complex correctly the first time. What we are afraid of then is not failure, but of being perceived as vulnerable. Vulnerability is usually perceived as a weakness, and it comes hand in hand with other negative feelings including grief, fear, sadness, and rejection. When we begin to see fear as the discomfort of being vulnerable to rejection, we can start to take steps to remediate the possibility of rejection and build the courage to try the news skills that will help us learn.

Let’s take a look at why embracing the not-so-great feelings associated with failure and vulnerability can have great leadership benefits.

Failure as a Teacher

Failure is an efficient teacher. Essentially, failing is the training ground for succeeding. Trying and failing produces productive motion. When one focuses on trying multiple attempts at a task, with the focus on not being perfect, one can gain real world insights, operationalize, and habituate best practices. We learn through repetition, so good leaders will reframe failure to be an educational tool to help learn and perfect new skills.

Failure as a Filter

Terrible at tennis? Bad at badminton? Kill all house plants? Failure helps us separate the important from the unimportant in our lives. Failing at those things for which we have no innate passion reinforces that tennis, badminton and house plants are not that important in our world and that they can be filtered out. But if the initial attempt to play basketball, or piano, or whatever are horrible and that failure engenders a “wow I suck at that but it was fun” response the initial failure helps us set the goal to become good or at least better at the skill in question. Good leaders and managers will identify those skills that their people and organization are not truly great at and either farm them out to others or remove them from the product mix as to focus only on those areas where the people or firm have a comparative advantage.

Failure as a Motivator

Complacency is the enemy of long-term success. People, companies, countries and sometimes entire cultures have been lulled by the incorrect notion that a successful past equates to a successful future. Failure reduces or eliminates complacency and has a way of motivating us. People who know from experience that markets rise AND fall, that competitors never sleep, and that being laid off can happen, tend to be more motivated and persistent. Leaders and managers need to walk a thin line when using the motivational powers of failure. The vision of failure needs to come from the outside (losing to a competitor) not the inside. Fear should not come from internal sources. If members of an organization do not feel safe to try new things the fear of failure will cause perfection paralysis or refusal to engage in anything but the simplest activities.

Failure as a Fear Curative

Afraid of changing jobs even though the current job is loathsome? Afraid of speaking up for fear of ridicule? Afraid of speaking in front of groups for fear of being laughed at, or worse yet ignored? Afraid of asking for… anything, a raise, a date, for fear of being rejected? Fear of failing is the progress limiter we all face. It keeps us from doing new things and asking for what we have earned. But the curious thing about failure is that once one has faced it and survived, the enemy is known. Familiarity with failure, can help one become accustomed to disregarding fear and can help one move on to try many new things. Some of the things attempted will be failures with no tangible impact, but enough of the attempts will be great successes that will move the needle of one’s life in a positive direction.

Failure as a Muse

What happens when one fails over and over at something one LOVEs to do? Or one has always been successful at something but suddenly due to age or change in circumstance success is no longer an option. In these situations, failure forces us to reevaluate what we want from the future. If we really NEED to be a part of the activity that was the most recent failure (or need it to be part of us) failure drives us to problem solve and develop creative solutions to keep the skill or activity in our lives. Good leaders identify people who are struggling with a new failure and afford them time or knowledge resources to help develop creative solutions to resolving the failure.

Failure as a Personality Enabler

When we fail, we send out distress signals. These distress signals, whether vocalized or non-verbal can be read by others. Friends, family, colleagues, sometimes even strangers will often offer assistance or even merely a sympathetic ear to someone who has recently failed. This process strengthens our support system or network of resources to help raise the potential for success next time. Additionally, this social side of failure helps us become more comfortable or even willing to reveal ourselves to others. This can improve personal relationships (ever heard “I wish you would tell me what you are feeling”?) and professional relationships by helping us become more emotionally aware, sympathetic, and optimistic mentors, coaches and leaders.

If your organization is trying to develop an innovative culture, develop into a learning organization, or remove a culture of fear, contact Expressworks. We have consultants with experience in these areas who can help in your journey.

In this installment of this blog series we discussed the inherent human fear of failure and some ways we can reframe our relationship with failure to overcome it so that fear of failure can become just another strong emotion that will help when learning new things. In the fourth installment of the series we will learn about how leaders can build a culture and environment that enables others to do their best work.

This blog is the third installment of a blog series on Change Leadership:

  1. What is a Leader?
  2. Better Outcomes Through Learning
  3. Failure and Bravery