If you fear failure…

The old adage goes that if you fear failure, you’ll never win.

This is something I used to buy into and used frequently. But over time, I worked with more and more people who were driven by a really powerful fear of failure and they were serially successful in their pursuits of excellence.

Their fear was actually a powerful fuel finding ways to win, rather than something that immediately precluded the possibility of winning.

As I thought more about this, I realised that for a long time, we’ve been so obsessed with success that we’ve missed the obvious power that knowledge of failure and how to avoid it brings to many people.

Reading time: 5 minutes

What goes on

With the obsessive focus on success, what was clear to me was that this all too quickly gets translated into ‘anything other than this success must be failure’, and it doesn’t take long to appreciate how crippling that thought is for many people. With only a little analysis, it’s easy to see that success and failure isn’t a binary construct. For any endeavour we can assess it on a scale that runs between 100% Failure and 100% Success. Working out where any performance or result sits on that continuum instantly gives us a different mindset and frees us up from the tyranny of a success only, black and white focus.

I’ve had lots of conversations recently with people about the importance of starting to talk about failure and to bring a shared understanding of what failure looks like from a performance AND results perspective. By starting to ask some specific questions about success and failure, I’ve seen people responding really confidently. The shared mental models of expected performance have become clearer. Expectations have become crystal clear rather than assumed. People’s personalities have been given the opportunity to be valued rather deemed as right or wrong.

And the questions? Simple.

  1. What is the acceptable success that you’re striving for in both Result and Performance?
  2. What is an unacceptable success where you deliver a Result but the Performance or implications of how you’ve succeeded fall short of your standards or values?
  3. What is an acceptable failure where you miss a Result, but the Performance and everything else about your efforts are totally in line with your standards, values and expectations.
  4. What is an unacceptable failure where you miss a Result through standards and quality of Performance that falls well short of your values and expectations?

Five Performance Truths

  1. If everything in your organisation speaks only of delivering success alone, you run the risk of having immoral or unsustainable methods to deliver that success by a culture of people full of a performance limiting fear of failure.
  2. Many people are driven by a fear of failure, so creating environments within which they can use this as a force for positive action is an essential step to take.
  3. When you start considering a whole range of total failure through to total success and you prepare and appraise accordingly, you’ll lay the foundations for much more consistent and confident performance.
  4. Just because you talk about failure, doesn’t mean you’ll make it happen. In fact, the opposite is probably true; the more you define failure, the clearer you can be at identifying the performance ingredients that will minimise the likelihood of it happening.
  5. There’s a vast amount of highly successful people who would recognise they’re driven by a fear of failure. They’ve worked out how to make the most of it rather than to fear it!

Three things to do

  1. Get a feel for how many people are driven by a fear of failure and how many people are driven by a desire to succeed. When you know this, you can begin to see how many people you’ve not been helping by having a myopic view on success.
  2. Start having conversations using the 4 questions about Acceptable and Unacceptable Success and Failure so you start creating a psychologically safer environment for everyone.
  3. Be ready to start evaluating all of your major activities and initiatives through the lens of success and failure so that you begin to develop the confidence that you’ve got the ability to play not to fail, as well as to play to succeed.