Embracing Fear and Failure in the Workplace


Did you know that Oprah was fired from her first news reporter position? Or that Jerry Seinfeld was booed off stage the first time he tried to get a laugh? Did you know that Michael Jordan didn’t make the varsity basketball team when he tried out his sophomore year?

Many of the most successful people have failed when they first started out. Why then do we fear failure—especially when we know that everyone’s experienced it? We fear failure because we fear judgment. We fear what others will think of us if we screw up. Our society has this all wrong, when we are toddlers learning to walk, we all have fallen down many times, yet we continue to get up. Same with when we learned to ride a bike. Failure is a part of the journey forward and it is important to recognize that failure is an important part too learning.

Every person on the planet will have failed at something. We may have lost a job or two, we may have been so immobilized by fear that we stay put and don’t grow and put ourselves in a rut. Have you ever had an idea, but was too afraid to speak up in a team meeting?

Fear of failure can hold us back from success. Fear is powerful, to some, it is terrifying to take that risk, fear can hinder our progression. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar said; “When approached properly, failure can be an opportunity for growth…mistakes aren’t a necessary evil…they are an inevitable consequence of doing something new.”

The key that managers and businesses need to do is cultivate a fear-based culture. You want your people to know that mistakes happen and to see them as learning opportunities for innovation and growth.

Catmull said there are two parts to any failure:

1.       There is the event itself

2.       There is our reaction to it.

In order to create a fearless culture, you can do the following:

•         Be open about problems

·       As leaders talk about your mistakes and your part in them… this makes it safe for your team to discuss their mistakes and less hesitant to explore new areas and identify uncharted pathways.

•         Find the benefits of past failures

·       All experiences have benefits, the trick is examining them to identify what was learned.

·       For example, if you missed an important deadline, maybe you learned that you need to prioritize better or say no to additional projects. Maybe you learned to tone down the perfectionism.

·       Ask yourself: Have you made any changes to prevent failures like this from happening in the future?

•         Encourage experimentation.

·       When experimentation is encouraged and seen as necessary, staff will enjoy work, even if it is frustrating.

·       Catmull describes experiments as fact-finding missions that over time lead yours toward greater understanding which means any outcomes is good because it yields new information.

·       On the flip side, Catmull said that “that being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas.”

•         Treat yourself and others kindly when your experimentation/experience fails.

·       In past segments, I have quoted Thomas Edison who said:  “I have not failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

·       Be kind to yourself, there will never be enough hours in the day.  This starts with self-care and self-compassion. Self-care means leave the office, leave the work behind, find things that you enjoy that help you cope with the intense negative emotions. Self-compassion is to remember that everyone fails and to not bully yourself or put yourself down.

I think Thomas Edison said it best when he said: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Remember that failure gives us a chance to grow.

By: Cheryl Viola, Executive Director