Separating Fear from Failure - Four Tools to Try When you Want to Fail/Grow Well
In today’s workplace, our ability to innovate and collaborate, and our capacity to push ourselves beyond conventional thinking to find creative solutions to complex problems are increasingly coveted characteristics. Not only that, but learning and growth is often considered a core human drive and as far back at the 1940’s, has been viewed as an essential component for self-actualisation and our ability to live to our full potential (Maslow, 1943). When we resist this instinctive motivation, it isn’t long before our old friend ‘boredom’ comes knocking at our door – a sure indicator that we have lurked for too long in the safety of our comfort zone.
Yet challenging ourselves in novel ways is scary, not least because there is the very real possibility that we fall flat on our face, often in a very public manner. This pressure to get it right first time is often heightened in professional contexts, where our status and reputation are hanging in the balance. The need to feel competent at work has been consistently identified as an antecedent to motivation and job satisfaction (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Thus, challenging ourselves to practice new skills, and explore innovative ways of doing things, can often propel us into a state of anxiety or fear.
Fear and the brain
Fear isn’t all bad. When we are faced with a real threat, we need to act quickly, and our brain’s ability to rapidly channel our energy and cognitive resource to dealing with danger in the best and most efficient way possible is very much a healthy human response (Rock, 2009). In times like these, our attention is focused on managing the threat, and other cognitive mechanisms like speaking with eloquence or creative problem solving are de-prioritised. The challenge is that our brain often finds it difficult to distinguish between real and perceived threats, so that even when we are not in actual danger, our brain might behave like we are.
Perceived psychological (as opposed to physical) threats create particular challenges for the brain because of the difficulty in accurately assessing the level of danger posed. This is compounded by the brain’s hard-wired tendency to place greater emphasis on negative rather than positive events – a phenomenon known as the negativity bias (Norris, 2019). Psychological threats come in many forms including the fear we will be judged or rejected when we make a mistake, being shamed when we share an ‘silly’ idea or ask a ‘stupid question’, concerns about being controlled by others and worries about not being good enough, funny enough, clever enough. And so, it goes on.
Fear in the workplace
Not only do fear states hinder our brains performance, a tendency to feel fear at work creates barriers to collaboration, undermines the potential for honest conversations, thwarts creative processes and increases the likelihood of errors going unreported and unresolved. Amy Edmondson in her book The Fearless Organization (2019) describes a large array of case studies which demonstrate the damaging impact of fear on organisational performance and success. In one study, medical staff were much more likely to report clinical errors in settings where they felt safe to take interpersonal risk and confident that they would not be shamed or unfairly blamed. This meant that errors and issues could be resolved, and ultimately resulted in better patient care.
Fear and stepping up
One of the most challenging aspects of the fear state is that it can propel us to a state of greater pessimism, and even undermine our overall life satisfaction (Duong, 2022). In turn, this can increase our propensity for risk aversion and prevent us from taking pro-active steps towards making positive changes. This is tricky because it can be hard to distinguish between when avoiding the fear is the right thing to do to protect our well-being or instead, when confronting the fear is best, in order that we challenge ourselves to grow and do our best work. We cannot know what we are capable of until we feel the fear and do it anyway, yet sometimes the personal costs of the fear state are just too high.
Four Tools to Try When you Want to Fail Grow Well
So, how do we decide when to step into our fear? And if we decide to leap, how can we best support ourselves to stay grounded and well? Below, I’ve suggested tools that may help address these questions, all supported by evidence-based research. They are all tools I’ve experimented with in my own practice and used in my coaching work with others. Each of them I’ve found to be effective and helpful on the journey of growth and personal development. There is individual variability in what works, and I believe the key is experimentation with what resonates for you.
Mission Statements: Our decisions are sometimes motivated by factors misaligned with what we genuinely want, such as proving ourself to others or a wish to demonstrate outward success. Whilst not problematic in themselves, the issue is when these drivers are out of step with our true sense of what is important. One tool to gain insight around what really matters are mission statements that invite us to reflect on meaning and purpose. First popularised by Stephen Covey (1989), mission statements endure as effective decision-making mechanisms that aid clarity around life choices and cultivate big picture thinking.
The ABC Model: In this model, it is shown how our belief systems (B) in relation to [activating] events (A) drive certain consequences (C), including our emotional reactions and behavioural choices. For instance, when faced with an opportunity to lead on a new and exciting work project (A), we may experience heightened anxiety (C) as a result of a somewhat unrealistic belief that ‘I must get everything right first time’ (B). Developing insight around our beliefs can be helpful because it provides the opportunity to reframe our thinking in ways that better support how we successfully navigate planned, personal risk. In this instance we could, for example, choose to reframe our belief as ‘I am competent and able, and I recognise I am not always perfect’.
Locus of control: Understanding we have influence over our life is the essence of personal empowerment. Individuals who align with this mindset tend to have an internal locus of control, such that they view themselves as active agents in cultivating the life they would like. This contrasts with having an external locus of control or the sense that we are passive agents or victim to a series of external life circumstances. When we intentionally choose to step into a (potentially) fear-inducing, growth-inspiring scenario, as opposed to feeling the event was thrust upon us, it can help us maintain a sense of calm and control. In contrast, when we consciously permit ourselves to decline the opportunity, this can be equally empowering. The key to managing fear in this instance, is conscious choice and intentional decision making.
Nurture your Inner Child: Psychiatrist Carl Jung (1969) is credited with coining the term “inner child”, used in popular psychology to refer to an unconscious self that is developed in early childhood, and which has impact throughout our lives. When we explore our past, we often find that seemingly innocuous experiences, such as being teased by our peers or publicly reprimanded by our teacher, have profound impact on who we are today. When these mini-traumas remain unresolved, they can persist into adulthood so that the ‘inner child’ persona is readily triggered by comparable experiences, such as jokey comments from colleagues or negative feedback from the boss. When navigating fear in this instance, a powerful tool is to practice nurturing the inner child, by responding to oneself as if one were an actual child. This tends to evoke empathic listening, reduced self-judgement, heightened self-compassion and the use of life-affirming self-talk.
Whilst this tool-set is not an exhaustive list, I hope you will find it interesting and useful reading. If you would like to work together on overcoming your fear, please do get in touch at email@example.com or on 07901 357 299.
Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon and Schuster, London, UK
Edmondson, A. (2019) The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, US
Franklin Covey: https://msb.franklincovey.com/, accessed October 2022
Jung, C. & Kerenyi, C. (1969). Essays on a science of mythology; the myth of the divine child and the mysteries of Eleusis, Princeton University Press, Princeton, US
Lopez-Garrido, G. (2020). Locus of Control: Definition and Examples, https://www.simplypsychology.org/locus-of-control.html, accessed October 2022
Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96
Norris, C (2019). The negativity bias, revisited: Evidence from neuroscience measures and an individual differences approach, Social Neuroscience, 16 (1), 68–82
Pikӧrn, I. Noticing, Healing and Freeing Your Inner Child, https://insighttimer.com/blog/inner-child-meaning-noticing-healing-freeing/, accessed October 2022
Rock, D. (2009). Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Work Smarter all Day Long, Harper Collins, New York, US
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being, American Psychologist, 55, 68-78
Selva, J. (2018). What is Albert Ellis’ ABC Model in CBT Theory? https://positivepsychology.com/albert-ellis-abc-model-rebt-cbt/, accessed October 2022
Stone, D & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Penguin Random House, London, UK
Weigold, I., Porfeli, E., & Weigold, A. (2013). Examining tenets of personal growth initiative using the Personal Growth Initiative Scale–II, Psychological Assessment, 25 (4)