4 Ways to Stop Fear of Failure From Holding You Back

“Failure is just a step on the way to success” is one of those common adages that most people nod along to but too few actually embrace. It’s just too abstract to be meaningful.

What nobody bothers to tell you is how to use failure to your advantage. So most of us still fear failure or try to avoid it at all costs, becoming stressed out and risk-averse — and less innovative — in the process. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how to change your mind about failure.

1. Approach challenges with gusto, focusing on what could go right rather than stewing on what could go wrong.

As a manager, you’re under a lot of pressure. It’s up to you to make important decisions that affect your company’s performance — and other people’s lives — and that’s stressful. But the way you think about this stress crucially affects how you perform.

If you think of this stress as a threat, like many of us do, your mind will default to negative thoughts that can erode your confidence, like, Oh no, I’m responsible. What if I make the wrong call? What if the higher-ups think my team isn’t effective?

On the other hand, if you’re able to view this stress more as an exciting challenge that you are totally capable of meeting, then you’re more apt to think, Yes, I’m responsible. I’m going to make the absolute best decision I can. I believe my team and I can meet this challenge.

Keep in mind that it’s harder to change your mindset about things further outside of your comfort zone, so consider practicing with smaller challenges that feel more familiar and less scary. Also, even if you are able to shift your brain to stop seeing something as a threat, you may feel the same physical sensations – nervous, shaky, or tense – that you did before. But you’ll also experience positive changes in your cardiovascular and hormonal responses to the stress that can increase your chance of success.

Tips to use this strategy:

  • When facing a tough situation, consider similar past challenges that you’ve overcome. Let’s say you’re worried about leading your team on a project they’ve never done before. Think back: Have you ever trained a new employee who needed a lot of extra support? Or rolled up your sleeves to help the team get a big project done on time? When you think of past successes, you’ll remind yourself that you have the capability to succeed in the challenge you now face.
  • Figure out what you’re good at — and how to leverage those strengths to overcome challenges. Nobody is good at everything, but chances are you’re exceptionally good at something, possibly many things. When you can play to those strengths, challenges feel less scary. For example, I used to be terrified of public speaking (who isn’t!), but I’m highly disciplined and a good writer. So when I had to give talks, I wrote out every word and practiced out loud until I felt comfortable. I’m still not a natural public speaker, but I no longer dread it, and sometimes, I even look forward to it.
  • Visualize success. There’s a reason so many pro athletes use visualization: Imagining yourself doing well puts you in the mindset to do well. If you ruminate about what could go wrong, you brain is preoccupied with negative thoughts, so your fear builds, and the failure you fear becomes more likely. Instead, focus on what success looks and feels like, and come back to that feeling every time doubt begins to nag at you.

2. Analyze past failures for benefits you may have missed at the time.

Plenty of business experts suggest that you should debrief on failures right after you experience them so you don’t forget the details of what happened. While this is true (see No. 4), keep in mind that it’s also the absolute hardest time for you to reflect on failure objectively because your emotions are still running high.

Instead, look at past disappointments to identify the ways you’ve benefitted from them. Yes, benefitted. The reality is that all failures have benefits — things you can learn that will help you next time — if only you’re open to paying attention. Understanding this can help reduce your fear of failure, helping you perform with more confidence and willingness to try new approaches.

And the more you practice looking for these benefits, the easier becomes to find them, even right after a failure.

Tips to use this strategy:

  • Pick a past failure and write out at least three things you learned from it. For example, if your team completely missed an important deadline, maybe you learned that your direct reports aren’t as independent as you thought and need more guidance from you or that you need to set better deadlines or be more persuasive with your boss when she insists on aggressive deadlines. Did you change anything as a result of these learnings? If not, now’s a good time to do so.
  • Ask people you respect how they have benefitted from their failures. Listen to their experiences. For example, a former boss once lost a million-dollar client, so now she has a system to check on client happiness more regularly. A peer stumbled through some challenging questions raised after a presentation; now, he knows he can handle criticism, even though it’s hard. Hearing from mentors and colleagues about their most challenging failures can help you learn to spot the benefits of your own mistakes more easily.

3. Be kind to yourself after something doesn’t turn out as you hoped.

Let’s face it, there simply aren’t enough hours in the workday to do your very best on every assignment, be a stellar coach to every direct report, or be everywhere at once. Occasionally, or maybe even often, you’ll be rushed or make a mistake or try a new approach that doesn’t work out. In these moments, you can do a lot of damage with self-criticism — which can grow into self-doubt and ultimately hurt your performance. On the other hand, if you choose to be kind to yourself, you’ll recover from disappointment more quickly and keep performing optimally.

Tips to use this strategy:

  • Recognize your own reactions to a failure. Analyzing your reactions helps you understand why you were afraid in the first place. Ask yourself:
    • Do I feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed?
    • Am I fearful of potential consequences?
    • Am I worried about other people’s reactions?
    • Am I angry at myself or others?
  • Practice self-care to cope with your reactions to failure. For example, if you are concerned about other people’s reactions, it may be helpful to seek out a friend to talk to about your feelings. Or if you discover that you’re angry with yourself or others, some sort of stress release – like exercise – might be useful for dissolving these emotions. 
  • Practice self-compassion when you make mistakes. Being a bully to yourself does no one any good. Instead, remember that we all fail and that there is no need to blame yourself, feel guilty, or feel inadequate. Instead, try starting an internal dialogue that is supportive, kind, and caring. One easy way that I do this is by posting notes around my workspace. I have a sticky on my computer monitor that says, “I accept myself for who I am” and a note in my email signature that says, “If you do what you already do, you will know what you already know” that reminds me that it’s good to dare, even if I might not succeed every time.

4. Share your failures with your team and peers.

Your inclination may be to hide out or avoid others when something doesn’t go well. After all, you’re a manager — you’re supposed to be in charge! And, like many managers, you may mistakenly believe that admitting a failure to others makes you seem weak.

On the contrary, opening up about how you’ve fallen short shows a self-awareness and honesty that often helps build trust and respect with your team and peers. Talking about failures with others gives you access to a whole new source of input and lessons that you might not have been able to identify on your own — which can lead to better outcomes for you and your team next time.

Tips to use this strategy:

  • Start by sharing small failures. For example, “I was really disorganized in that meeting” or “My response to the client was hasty and unclear.” Be sure you also communicate what you learned from the experience and how you plan to change. Over time, you can share bigger shortfalls. I once had a boss who told me that he was scolded by the senior leadership team for consistently being late on projects. That was a big failure that he didn’t have to tell me about, but when he did, I felt like I could be more honest with him.
  • Seek feedback on the impact of your failures. Try the formula I notice that I …” followed by “What is the impact of that?” For example, “I notice that I was really disorganized in that meeting. How do you think that impacted the team?” You could learn about new consequences to consider.
  • For recently completed projects, hold a debrief meeting with invested parties . Use this time to explore what went wrong — and right. Look for patterns and discuss how to be more successful in the future. These kinds of team discussions can help build a culture of improvement and the attitude that when stuff goes wrong, it’s best to talk it through with others and look for ways to do better next time.
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