What’s the key to success in business? According to Sir James Dyson, the answer is overcoming the fear of failure. Today, his net worth stands at around five billion dollars, but it certainly wasn’t an easy ride to the top. In fact, Dyson might have set a world record for most failures before reaching success. Before he became famous for his vacuum cleaners, he drained his life savings, built 5,127 failed prototypes, and owed his bank a million pounds. In his own words, he reminds entrepreneurs: “Everyone gets knocked back, no one rises smoothly to the top without hindrance. The ones who succeed are those who say, right, let’s give it another go.”
Being an entrepreneur is a journey where you will encounter obstacles and hardships. These moments can be both trying and terrifying. Nevertheless, leaders need to know how to rise when they fall, so they don’t get knocked down for too long. More importantly, they should also teach their team members the skills required to pick themselves back up after reaching for a major goal but falling short.
A survey from Linkgoal found that the fear of failure is the most relatable phobia among adults. Yet, how many people would be afraid of failure if they knew how to fail? As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Without this organizational attitude, the fear of failure holds teams back from developing innovative companies that have a long-term, positive effect on the world around them.
In this article, find out more about what failure is and six tips for overcoming it.
What is Failure?
The Definition of Failure
A simple definition of failure is a lack of success in one’s performance. For example, this can include not meeting predetermined goals, being rejected by a prospective client, or making a mistake at work. Yet another example from Merriam-Webster more accurately describes what the fear of failure does to a person. Here, failure is described as “a fracturing or giving way under stress.” When a person can’t handle failure, they splinter. The more they avoid failure, the more stress and anxiety increase. When left unmanaged, there’s only one result—completely caving under pressure.
What Causes the Fear of Failure
Most often, a person’s fear of failure begins during childhood. “Popular culture defines failure as being poor, anonymous, powerless, unpopular, or physically unattractive . . . It has conveyed to children that if they fail, they will be ostracized by their peers and branded as losers for life,” writes Dr. Jim Taylor for Psychology Today. Unfortunately, many internalize these ideas and grow to believe failing could ruin their lives.
Children can also suffer from the fear of failure when parents contribute to the development of a fixed mindset. This is especially common in gifted children who grow into perfectionists whose self-value is directly tied to accomplishments. In their eyes, failure equates to being less worthy to themselves and others. Because of this mentality, they avoid the risk of failure. In the workplace, this can look like being a high-performer in certain tasks, but refusing new responsibilities or rejecting loftier goals.
Additionally, traumatic experiences as an adult can result in a fear of failure. For example, feeling humiliated after bombing a keynote speech can cause feelings of rejection and shame. Instead of a healthy processing of emotions and shifting into a growth mindset, shame leads many people to build walls and retreat into “never again” territory. Because of this, leaders or team members will avoid the risk of challenging themselves to protect themselves from potential suffering and emotional damage.
Symptoms of Fearing Failure
Symptoms of fearing failure can manifest in a variety of ways. Listed below are some common signs of atychiphobia (the fear of failure).
- Automatically saying “no” when asked to challenge yourself or try something new.
- Practicing negative self-talk.
- Downplaying your intelligence or skills so expectations aren’t too high.
- Creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of negative outcomes.
- Struggling with perfectionism and inability to turn projects in on time due to excessive revisions.
- Fearing people will think differently of you if you fail.
- Worrying that a mistake could drastically change the course of your future.
- Avoiding thoughtful discussions around failures and mistakes.
- Feeling physically ill at the prospect of a negative outcome.
- Procrastinating or not prioritizing the achievement of important goals.
Negative Effects of the Fear of Failure
The fear of failure can negatively affect a leader’s abilities, other team members, and overall, the success of a company. Fearing failure can impact a business by:
- Minimizing leadership qualities like inspiration and motivation. This affects engagement, work burnout levels, and employee retention.
- Developing a toxic work culture where perfectionism is the status quo. This creates work stress, work anxiety, and less-than-daring teams.
- Feeling unable to exercise vulnerability and build trust with team members.
- Lacking joy and fulfillment in work and life.
- Suffering from low self-esteem and self-confidence.
- Holding team members back who have the drive and capabilities to take the company to the next level.
- Losing business due to not staying ahead of competitors saturating the market with lookalike products and services.
- Not spending time strategizing on the future of the company and reinvesting in a new remarkable product or service.
- Passing up growth opportunities due to the fear of risk-taking.
- Lacking the adaptability and innovation necessary to sustain a healthy, long-standing organization.
How to Get Over the Fear of Failure
Many people suffer from a fear of failure because they’ve never been taught how to process setbacks in an emotionally constructive way. Those who aren’t equipped with overcoming failure can lash out, refuse accountability, project onto others, become crippled with indecision, or isolate themselves. None of these effects bolster innovation or the adaptable attitude needed for long-term business success.
Reacting to failure with a growth mindset can entirely change the course of the outcomes of a setback, though. Those who see failure as a learning opportunity and means for improvement will rise with resilience, integrity, and determination to dust themselves off with new understanding and get back to work.
Use the five tips below to start rising above your fear of failure.
Tip 1: Develop a Strategy for Conquering Your True Fear
Failure is a lack of success. Since the definition of success can vary from person-to-person, the term “failure” can also range in meaning. If you fear failure, sit down and evaluate what’s behind the mask of fear. For example, this might look like actually being afraid of disappointing your team or not being able to financially provide for your family. Get curious about what your real fear is and develop a plan for overcoming it.
Ask the following questions:
- What drives your fear of failure?
- Why does it scare you?
- How do your body and mind react to failure?
- What can you do to alleviate feelings of anxiety and stress?
- Why is it important to pick yourself up after a setback?
- Who is there to support you when you fall?
- When you fail, how can you shift toward a positive outcome?
Answering these questions outlines a game plan for recognizing when it seems you’re failing and why. Create a five-step strategy for handling the moments you think you’re not succeeding.
For example, this might look like:
- Doing a body scan to notice any mental or physical changes caused by anxiety.
- Finding an outlet to destress (for example, going on a run, meditating, or journaling).
- Calling your mentor or someone in your support group to discuss how you’re feeling and talking through what’s bothering you.
- Working through a problem-solving session to find actionable solutions to help alleviate problems caused by failure.
- Blocking off time in your calendar to work on these steps.
Tip 2: Prepare for Success and Failure Through Visualization
There’s a reason people are fearful when there is a lack of visual stimuli. For example, this might look like fear of entering a dark cave or swimming in open water. As explained in an article written by Andrew Tarantola for Gizmodo, “For a large portion of humanity’s early days, we were far from the top of the food chain. Our ancestors quickly learned that many predators prefer the cover of darkness to hunt and over time that association strengthened into a subconscious absolute: stay out of the dark because that’s where the danger is.” When we can’t see where we’re going, the body and mind naturally become stressed.
Preparing for success and failure through visualization is a strategy that makes us feel less in the dark—“where the danger is.” It helps us see where we’re going and alleviates anxiety caused by the unknown. Even if failure does occur, mapping out potential outcomes allows leaders to develop a strategy to pivot and avoid a significant loss. In short, visualization illuminates the path to goal achievement.
Begin visualizing outcomes by:
- Defining a highly detailed end goal.
- Reverse engineering the steps it takes to achieve your objective.
- Writing down what must be true to complete each phase.
- Imagining what could occur as the team works through your strategy.
- Identifying potential obstacles before they happen.
- Developing a plan of action for roadblocks or a Plan B, should pivoting be necessary at any stage.
A business leader can feel a lot more confident walking into the future with a strong, thoughtfully developed strategy that lights the way toward success.
Tip 3: Use the Power of Positive Thinking
Shifting the ways you think about failure can alter its meaning. When we see failure as defeat, it does defeat us. However, viewing failure as an opportunity to learn equips us to get back up again with insight on how to move forward. Thomas Eidson was a champion of doing so. He once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Positive thinking kept him pushing toward innovation and invention.
To practice becoming a positive thinker, try:
- Finding a constructive outlet when you experience stress and anxiety. Those can include exercise, yoga, boxing, creating art, or meditating.
- Recognizing and breaking negative thought cycles that deepen and strengthen with time.
- Working through harmful limiting beliefs that hold you back. For more information on how to do this, check out this article: Limiting Beliefs: A Guide for Overcoming Self-Limitations.
- Practicing positive self-talk to boost self-confidence and self-belief.
- Conducting self-analysis to grow self-awareness and stop negative rumination.
Learn more about developing positive thinking habits by reading “How to Use Positivity to Transform Your Business and Life.”
Tip 4: Set Challenging Goals
Comfortability can breed more fear and resistance that hinders innovation and creativity. One of the best ways to get over fear is to confront it head-on with challenging, attainable goals. While you don’t want to set yourself up for failure, begin branching outside-of-the-box to help you adjust to increasingly difficult goals. For example, this might look like setting a goal to double the deals you close over Q1. During the next quarter, keep up this progress by tripling the initial number of closed deals during Q2. To help yourself succeed, work through a goal-setting process that allows for the achievement of objectives that push your usual boundaries.
Implement a strong goal setting strategy by:
- Making goals specific, measured, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).
- Developing three to five large-scale goals that are more difficult to achieve.
- Tracking pre-determined key results.
- Developing a method and strategy for accomplishing these measures.
- Scheduling time in your calendar for working on top-priority tasks.
- Recognizing and eliminating self-sabotaging behavior. For example, procrastinating until the last day before a big presentation.
- Developing strong habits like time-blocking, setting milestones, and creating an actionable strategy for goal accomplishment.
Tip 5: Focus on What You are in Control Over
Failure can feel like surrendering total control over your life. But, panic and emotionally driven decision-making only add fuel to the fire. The truth is, there are still a variety of factors you can control that will help change the overall outcome of an error or mishap. For instance, you’re still in control of your thoughts, words, and actions. Take a minute to observe the situation and identify at least three areas you have control over. How can you use these to make a difference? Give yourself space to pause for a moment and think about how to drive a better outcome.
To avoid spiraling out of control when failure occurs, try:
- Dedicating several minutes to box breathing.
This tactical technique used by the Navy SEALs stimulates the parasynthetic system, which creates a calming and relaxing sensation. To do this, inhale for four seconds, hold the inhalation for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold the exhalation for four seconds, and repeat.
- Visualizing the outcome of losing control over yourself.
For instance, imagine yourself stressed, upset, and not able to gain control over the circumstances at hand. Did it make the situation better or worse? More than likely, doing this could only make the outcome worse.
- Problem solving within a reasonable time frame.
Say you lost your best team member to another competitor. While you might be disappointed for a day, it’s also important to find out why the person is leaving. Start the problem solving process 24 hours after you’ve had time to work through any negative feelings. Being proactive about finding a solution is the best thing a leader can do when experiencing failure.
- Develop a list of resolutions and start acting.
Finally, review what caused this lack of success. Have a lot of clients noted poor customer service? Are you making too many errors because you’ve got too much on your plate? Get to the root of what’s causing your inability to reach your maximum potential. Next, brainstorm ideas about how to prevent failure in the future. Reverse engineer each solution, and choose the one that results in the greatest outcome. Ensure this idea is implemented, and measure its success along the way.
Bonus Tip: Lead Others Out of the Shame of Failure
Most team members know what they need to do to succeed. But hardly anyone has a guidebook on dealing with failure—which makes it all the more daunting. As a leader, it’s your job to create a work environment in which your team can thrive. A part of this is teaching your people not only how to succeed but also how to fail. As Brene Brown writes in Dare to Lead, “We have to teach people how to land before they jump. When you go skydiving, you spend a lot of upfront time jumping off a ladder and learning how to hit the ground without hurting yourself . . . The same is true in leadership—we can’t expect people to be brave and risk failure if they’re not prepped for hard landings.”
Write your organization’s handbook for dealing with failure. Own your mistakes, show people how to fail, and how to rise even stronger. Leading by example is the best way of eliminating the stigma of failure. Create a team culture where people are expected to own their mistakes, but not let error define them. Sara Blakely, CEO and founder of SPANX, and her “oops meetings” are a positive reference for how leaders can handle failure. These meetings are opportunities for team members to describe and even make light of their mistakes. She tells Stanford Business, “If you can create a culture where [your employees] are not terrified to fail or make a mistake, then they’re going to be highly productive and more innovative.”