The Fear of Failure

What Happens When an Employee has Something to Lose?

By David Cox, SPHR, SHRM-SCP | November 17, 2016

We don’t like to think of ourselves as fearful, but we’re all afraid of certain things. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know this has been true since childhood. As adults, we realize some of those fears were real while others were imaginary. As children, we may have been afraid of the dark, or monsters under our bed, or maybe even a bully at school. Sad to say, as we grow into adulthood, our fears seem to grow with us and seem even more threatening. Some may be afraid of heights, others of crawl spaces, but a surprising number of adults are afraid of failure.

Psychologist understand that fear is a limiting factor in our lives. However, employers need to understand that the fear of failure can specifically limit the potential of employees. When employees limit their own potential to advance their careers, they are also limiting their potential to have a positive impact on the development of the business. So, what seems to be an employee problem turns out to be a problem that inevitably impacts the employer.

A young lady I’ve known for several years, named Audra, is a classic example. Audra has always worked hard and put in long hours in learning how to do her job well. In the last couple of years, she took a few big risks at work that turned out well and landed her a big promotion.

Today, Audra is a manager with her company. She leads a small staff, makes good money and likes her role and responsibilities.

Audra continues to work hard, but those risks that helped her get noticed and landed her promotion to management now seem too risky. She’s afraid that if she takes a risk and fails, she will look bad and potentially jeopardize her position. So, Audra avoids risk and plays it safe. Her fear has changed the way she behaves. She has moved from being a bold risk-taker to someone much more risk-averse.

Audra’s fear is causing her to stop doing the very things that helped her advance in her career. What’s worse, her employer seems oblivious to the fact that her fear of failure is limiting her ability to have a positive impact on the development of the business. A wise employer who recognizes this problem could take steps to help Audra get back on track and in doing so, restore her potential effectiveness in developing the business.

If you have a manager/employee who has been “playing it safe,” consider a conversation with the individual where the following questions would be appropriate.

  1. What are you afraid of at work?
  2. Are you avoiding risks you took in the past that helped you advance?
  3. Do you feel like you have too much to lose to continue taking those risks?
  4. What is it you’re afraid of losing?
  5. What risks have you stopped taking because of your fear of failure?
  6. Can you advance at work by “playing it safe?”

Maybe the employee’s fears are more like the monsters under your bed when you were a kid. Getting an employee through their fear of failure may be as simple as helping them assess their concerns and separate the real from the imaginary. Just imagine what might be possible if you stopped being scared and started taking those risks again.