Fear Of Failure

Posted January 30, 2013 by Kristi Royse in On the Ladder
Fear of Failure

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts in which we talk about various facets of fear, how it impacts the workplace, and how (and why) we, as women in leadership roles, need to change fear into trust. Here, we talk about fear of failure.

Failure, as successful people know, is an integral part of the path to success.

Fear of failure – an unwillingness to accept and learn from mistakes – inhibits the growth and creativity of a team. Make failure a tool for growth and watch your teams flourish and your success increase.

Fear Perfection, Not Failure

Leaders are high achievers.  Our drive and ambition, combined with big dreams and passion, create the perfect conditions for great success.  We know what we want, how to make it happen, and waste no time in going after it. Many highly motivated people also strive for another, less realistic, goal:


We want to exceed expectations, make our work stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, and leave no room for criticism.

Many of you may be thinking, “I don’t see the problem. Wanting to be perfect isn’t terrible.  It can help us produce quality work and excellent leadership.”  Pursuing excellence is one thing.  Striving for perfection can lead to one’s downfall.

The thing about perfection is that it isn’t attainable. And when perfection is the only acceptable goal, we lose the lessons that come from failure.

Fear of the Fall

Failure is intimidating.  It is often difficult for us to admit to our mistakes, because failing feels like a reflection on our character.  Too often we don’t see it as just a mistake, we see it as defining us.

Instead, see in a mistake an opportunity to grow.

Trusting Enough To Fail

The reason many of us fear failure so greatly is due to a lack of trust.  As Patrick Lencioni discusses in “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team”, when trust is missing, team members tend to conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another.

When people don’t feel comfortable showing weakness or admitting mistakes, teams lose opportunities for growth.  Their ability to excel is diminished, they are less creative, and the success and profitability of the company is reduced.

Overlooking mistakes means overlooking opportunities for excellence.

In “The Trouble With Teamwork”, Lencioni talks about vulnerability-based trust. To develop vulnerability-based trust members of a cohesive, functional team must learn to acknowledge:

  • mistakes
  • weaknesses
  • failures
  • needs for help

Recognizing and addressing these elements as a leader creates an environment in which fear of failure is eliminated.  Team members are not afraid to make mistakes when they realize they will not be blamed or rejected.  This allows teams to take greater risks and be more innovative.

Read my related post on vulnerability here

Leading The Way

Ask these questions: How can I grow from this experience? What happened to cause the mistake? What can I do better next time? What can I learn from this experience?

To create a workplace culture where people are allowed to fail and learn from it, where they don’t have to worry about being blamed or shamed for making mistakes, leaders need to set the example. The focus of any failure should be what happened, not who did it, and how do we use it to grow. As a leader, it is important to:

  • model what it looks like to admit to failure
  • deal with the situation honestly
  • learn from the mistake, and
  • move forward

Understanding the failure that occurred within your team is important. Learn from the mistakes that are made, move forward, and don’t ignore the fact that your team is not perfect.  Learning from mistakes does not necessarily mean that it will never happen again.

Realize and live the truth that perfection is not an option.  Recognize that if you or your team hold the belief that you are perfect you’re only fooling yourself.  Further, you’re cheating yourself out of an incredible opportunity to grow.

How do you turn failure into a learning experience for your team? What are best practices you have implemented to create a trusting environment? What are benefits of learning to fail well?

About the Author

Kristi Royse

Kristi believes that leaders create success by inspiring their people to greatness through vision, communication, trust and teamwork, and that female leaders are uniquely positioned to develop this greatness in themselves and others. CEO of KLR Consulting, Kristi is a nationally-recognized speaker, executive coach, facilitator, management consultant, and trainer. Since 1987, Kristi has been coaching executives to be stronger leaders and helping organizations optimize their most vital resource - people.