What Does it Mean to Fear Failure, What Drives It and How to Deal With It?

by Janet Sernack

In the 2014 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report more than 206,000 individuals were surveyed across 73 economies and 3936 national experts on entrepreneurship from 73 economies participated in the survey. GEM participant economies represent 72.4% of the world’s population and 90% of the world’s GDP, enables GEM to feature different profiles of entrepreneurship according to regionsand the economic development stage.

Amazingly, and alarmingly, they stated that “people’s fear of failure can be a strong inhibitor for seizing opportunities and transforming entrepreneurial intentions into entrepreneurial activity. The highest fear of failure (measured among the group with perceived opportunities) was expressed by respondents in 2104 GEM EU economies (40.7%), followed by respondents in Asia and Oceania region (37.5%). In the most developed countries (innovation-driven economies), the fear of failure is higher than in factor-driven and efficiency-driven economies. In the group of GEM EU economies, the highest rates of fear of failure are observed in Greece (61.6%), Poland (51.1%), Oceania economies, the highest fear of failure was expressed by respondents in Japan (54.5%) and Vietnam (50.1%)”.

Does this mean that between more than one third and one half of people are so inhibited by their fear of failure that they are unable to seize an entrepreneurial opportunity to transform it into actual entrepreneurial activity?

So what does it mean to fear of failure and what really drives it?
In my twenty plus years as a global leadership facilitator and executive coach, peoples’ fears around failure have impacted or inhibited every major change initiative I have ever been involved with. In fact, recently, a very powerful and incredible participant in my Coach for Innovators Program shared; “my client didn’t pay my bill for 90 days, so I quit the project and I am so frozen now by my fear of failure I can’t leave the house.”

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘fear’ as “An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.”

So from a cognitive perspective, I’ve noticed, in my work as an executive and innovative coach, that most people’s fears around failure are a result of a cognitive bias, or an irrational belief that acts as a filter which then distorts reality. From an emotional perspective, I’ve noticed that most people’s fears around failure area result from the pain of being vulnerable, abandoned, punished or shamed in front of others, or of being disapproved of rejected or disliked by others. From a visceral or gut perspective, I’ve noticed that we are wired neurologically to avoid the threat of danger or pain, so we automatically move away and avoid, or move towards and confront dangerous or threatening situations.

It seems that some people’s motivation to avoid failure often exceeds their motivation to succeed. This fear of failure causes them to unconsciously sabotage their chances of success, and can play a significantly undermining role in the derailment of what might be, a successful career or outcome.

Managing your cycles of collusion
I have also noticed that most people’s fear of failure tends to operate as an unconscious ‘closed loop’ which often makes it self sustaining. This means that once it develops, which is most often in childhood, it perpetuates itself as an automatic ‘cycle of collusion’ until there is a direct intervention to stop and re-frame it.

Another recent client, Steve, a very dissatisfied senior executive in a global financial services organization, was aching to play in the innovative entrepreneurial space.
In our work together we managed to acknowledge and work with his cycle of collusion to resolve his fear of failure by;
1. Enhancing his self awareness and paying attention to his internal state, this enabled him to anticipate and tune into any feelings of potential disapproval from the other person he was interacting with.
2. Acknowledging (and not judging) the internal state of anxiety resulting from the potential threat of danger, pain or harm.
3. Instead of reacting automatically to relieve the anxiety by appeasing the other person and giving his power away to them to gain their approval, he developed the presence to simply flow with the situation.
4. He then experimented with a series of internal disruptive generative questions to create the space between stimulus and response to introduce options, some of these included:
“What is really going on for me right now?”
– “What is my outcome in this situation?”
– “What do I want for me?”
– “How can I choose to respond to have what I want?”

5. He then calibrated and chose his response to the other person and relived his anxiety by responding appropriately.
Had he not taken personal responsibility for managing the situation, he would have simply relived his anxiety by appeasing the other person to resolve and avoid any potential conflict.
He would have been rewarded by the sense of relief he would have felt by doing this. This then would have confirmed his false assumption that the real danger had been averted which would have reinforced and perpetuated the fear.

Letting go of our avoidance strategies
Interestingly, this type of avoidance strategy ensures that we never actually experience what we are trying to avoid. It is only when we do have an authentic failure, which hits us at the cognitive (head), emotional (heart) and visceral (gut) levels that we truly experience what failure, in reality, means.
Having spent the better part of my corporate career being consumed by my fear of failure and playing this avoidance game, and having the start-up entrepreneurs real life experiences of making colossal failures, I have dipped my toe in the water and broken this pattern.

Just imagine, if more than one third to one half of people were also empowered and enabled to effectively take responsibility and manage their fears of failure?

What if they seized the entrepreneurial opportunities that GEM describes and transformed them into actual entrepreneurial activities, products and services that people valued and cherished?

Wouldn’t the world be a better and richer place for it!

image credit: Behrooz Nobakht

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How the Lean Start-up Accelerates Innovation Janet Sernack gained her consulting, education, facilitation, training and executive coaching skills, from 30 years experience in manufacturing, retailing and learning and development businesses to Australia’s and Israel’s’ top 100 companies. She resides in Israel where she founded a start-up, ImagineNation™ that teaches innovative leadership and start-up entrepreneurship via The Start-Up Game™.