We’ve all felt the fear of failure before. You might have simply worried about fumbling a few words when speaking in public. Or perhaps you’ve put off asking for a pay rise in case you weren’t successful. Or maybe, you’ve watched opportunity after opportunity pass by, too afraid to try something new.
Clearly, fear of failure can really hold us back. And when that fear stops being an individual stumbling block and becomes part of a team or company’s culture, it prevents the whole business from progressing.
So let’s break it down a little – what is it that we’re really afraid of?
The two basic fears
I recently revisited the excellent Fearology episodes of the Ologies podcast. In them, Mary Poffenroth explains that, really, all our complex fears boil down to two basic ones: fear of not being enough; and fear of not being in control.
In other words, when we’re afraid of failure, we’re imagining futures where either we or the circumstances make things go wrong. Though we often feel them at the same time, I think these are two quite different things. So I’m going to explore how psychological safety – as defined by Amy Edmondson in The Fearless Organization – can prevent your team from getting bogged down in these fears.
Fear of not being enough
One of the key steps in building psychological safety is getting to know each other. As well as building bonds between team members, this makes them better able to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Many of us underestimate our own abilities, and having a team you can turn to for an honest assessment of your skills can help with this.
Of course, sometimes your skills really are lacking in an important area. But none of us is a finished product – we’re all continuously learning. So in a psychologically safe team, you feel empowered to ask your manager about training and mentorship options to improve where needed.
Even if you’ve prepared well, you may still worry that you’re not good enough, that you’ll fail and be looked down on. That’s why it’s vital for leaders to destigmatise failure – ideally by talking about their own failures, big and small. After all, failure is often a necessary stepping stone on the way to success.
Even outside of organised teams, communities develop ways to encourage each other to learn through failure, and not be held back by the fear of not being enough. I love the example of freelance writers setting rejection goals, turning every “no” into a “yes, one down!”
Fear of not having control
Of course, for many of those writers getting rejected, the issue isn’t their talent. It’s editors having full inboxes, or insufficient budget, or other things beyond the freelancer’s control.
The first thing to do when addressing this fear in teams is obvious: preparation, preparation, preparation. Planning for worst case scenarios does two important things. Firstly, it gives you as much control as possible, enabling you to avoid preventable failures. And secondly, it removes that edge of unprepared panic if the worst does happen.
But it’s also important to make it clear that no one is always in control. Members of teams with low psychological safety may worry they’ll be blamed for errors which were out of their control. Of course, that simply means the team can’t do anything to minimise the fallout of the failure, or prevent it happening again.
Facing and embracing failure
Ultimately, members of psychologically safe teams know that mistakes are not the enemy. They learn to fail quickly, to laugh off honest mistakes, and to learn from things going wrong.
Psychologically safe teams also have high levels of trust and mutual support. This encourages collaboration, and a sense of shared ownership of both successes and failures. And everyone knows they can learn just as much from both, bringing valuable lessons with them to face the next challenge and grasp the next opportunity.