Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Roots of Fear of Failure

In my opinion, especially in highly innovative and driven organizations, the fear of failure among workers is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. Far Bank isn’t a bank at all but a very cool river-related name for a holding company for several lines of gear including Sage rods.

The CEO, Travis Campbell, agrees in a video clip for 30-Second MBA that it is key is to “remove the fear of failure from your people,” but he didn’t get enough seconds to explain how.

I gleaned much more insight on fear of failure from an excellent new book on management that I just finished. It is entitled Your Children Are Listening – Nine Messages They Need To Hear From You, written by Dr. Jim Taylor.

No, I’m not planning to start a new family in my retirement. I read the book just to brush up on being a Grandpa to my two grandsons, 1st and 2nd graders, and so I don’t inadvertently complicate anything for their single-mom-lawyer, who is my daughter and only offspring and such an incredible parent.

The book also helped me realize that the boys really were listening even though I couldn’t tell at times as they were excitedly fly-casting off the dock on a Rocky Mountain lake where we were vacationing with my sister and brother-in-law at their place along the Washington-Northern Idaho border between the Colville and Coeur D’Alene national forests.

My grandsons are already probably as good as I ever was and picking up on fly-fishing just fine on their own. Along with a lot of other things they’ve already learned in their short lives, it will give them a sense of competence.

Taylor’s book is just as useful for CEOs as it is parents and could be titled “Your Employees Are Listening – Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You.” His background is in sports and business performance.

This is a very positive, up-beat, how-to book. But I’m not sure just how much a fear of failure can be remedied in an adult. I may have been successful at a lot of things but helping people, even if they recognize it, to overcome fear of failure is extremely difficult.

Below is a baker’s dozen of quotes from just one small part of one chapter that provided me several “ah-hah” moments:

  • “Competence is the most neglected contributor to self-esteem…A well-developed sense of competence gives a child confidence to leave the safety of the family, explore, take risks, overcome challenges, and strive for goals.

  • “Fear of failure America is epidemic…children who fear failure are taught by parents to do so.”

  • “...popular culture...if you fail, you are a loser...creates a culture of fear and avoidance of failure that prevents children from developing a vital sense of competence that, ironically enough, would reduce chances of failure.”

  • “...children who are driven to avoid failure (rather than pursue success) are stuck in limbo between failure and real competence and success, a place I call the "safety zone"...unwilling to intensify their efforts or take a risk.”

  • “...children who suffer from a fear of failure have a skewed view of failure. The reality is that failure is an inevitable and essential part of life that offers far more benefits than costs.”

  • “Failure connects children's actions with consequences, and that connect helps them gain ownership of their efforts. Failure teaches important life skills, such as commitment, patience, determination, decision making and problem solving…Failure teaches children humility and appreciation or opportunities...”

  • “...reframe failure not as a judgment on their competence or their worthiness as people, but as information and a lesson to be learned. The information may be that they didn't prepare well enough or they made some poor decisions in how they used their time. The lesson...prevent failure in the future by doing something different the next time...”

  • “...lay the foundation for healthy attitudes toward failure that will serve them well when they get to the age when results matter…Children can't be convinced they are competent... The only way for children to build confidence is through firsthand experience that includes travails, triumphs, struggles, setbacks, and successes...success isn't the goal....the goal is to develop their willingness to keep trying.”

  • “Praise is a powerful tool for developing competence...Yet praise is an incredibly misused strategy for building competence and self-esteem.”

  • “Research has shown that how you praise your children has a powerful influence on their development. For example studies found that children who were praised for their intelligence, as compared to their effort, become overly focused on results. Following a failure, the same children persisted less, showed less enjoyment, attributed their failure to lack of ability...”

  • “Too much praise of any sort can also be unhealthy. Research found that students who were lavished with praise were more cautious in their responses to questions, had less confidence in their answers, were less persistent in difficult assignments, and less willing to share their ideas.”

  • “Other research reported that children who were praised for their effort showed more interest in learning, demonstrated greater persistence and enjoyment, attribute their failure to lack of effort and performed well in subsequent achievement activities....worked new challenges.”

  • “By letting them come to this realization on their own, they learn to reinforce themselves, and they don't become praise junkies dependent on you for how they feel about their efforts and accomplishments.”

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