Fear of Failure
By James Robertson


Everybody is afraid of something. Some people fear spiders or snakes or dogs or confined spaces or the dark. None of these is exactly rational, but fear is part of the psychological makeup of almost all humans—it is one of our prime motivators. One of the most common fears (30% of Americans apparently) is the fear of speaking in front of a public audience. More people say they fear that more than they do death. This gives rise to the notion a third of the population would prefer to be in the coffin rather than give the eulogy.

The fear I am concerned with here is the fear of failure. Specifically, I am looking at an employee’s fear of failing in the eyes of the manager or in the opinion of his/her peers. You can also think of it as a fear of public ridicule. This is not always a self-grown fear; nevertheless, it is a fear that is possibly the single largest inhibitor of innovation. It is worth looking at more closely.

Consider this: an employee who is afraid of failure does not make suggestions for improvements or innovations. To do so risks disapproval. The employee knows that the manager’s role is almost always to protect the status quo—if something is working, then why allow a disruptive innovation? As soon as the manager, or anyone else for that matter, says something along the lines “No, that’s not going to work” or “we don’t do that here”, then the employee has failed in his/her own terms. So why reveal one’s ideas by proposing innovations? They could well be the best innovations the organisation has ever heard, but they are not going to be heard—the fear of failure means keeping ones mouth closed.

Thankfully, fear is not always present. As I visit various organisations talking to them about innovation, I am struck by the dichotomy between the fearless and the fearful. Fearless organisation permit—indeed encourage—their employees to have ideas and start the process of evaluating and refining the idea. I hear things like, “That’s a great idea. I have no notion of whether it will fit with our product line, or whether we have a market for it, but let’s look further into it.”  The person having the idea receives nods of appreciation from the peers present, and significantly, all of them feel safe to suggest innovations.

I watched with satisfaction the participants at one of my local government clients. I was running a workshop on innovation, and the teams were responding with some remarkable innovations that would change the services they provide. There was no fear (keep in mind that this is a local government organisation). Instead, the team members made changes to their services without any of the anxious “will we be allowed to do this?” kind of remarks so often heard in these circumstances. I loved the smiles of delight when they realises they were making changes that improved their service—this after all is the point of local government—and in some cases made provision cheaper. I am happy to report that the innovations have a life beyond the workshop. Most of them are now part of the organisation’s regular list of services.

It might seem strange that to be innovative, it is necessary to have no fear of failure, when failure is a significant factor in innovation. Most innovations fail. James Dyson needed 15 years and over 5,000 prototypes before he brought his bagless vacuum cleaner to market. The great Thomas  Edison—perhaps one of the most innovative people ever to live—is quoted as saying “I have never failed. But I have found 10,000 things that do not work.” Michael Dell accepts failure as part of his business. But instead of blame, the Dell peers get together after some failure and determine what—not who—went wrong and what they can learn from the failure.

Not every innovation works right out of the bag. Some do, and some take time before they are ready for prime time. Some sound good at first hearing but reveal themselves later to be impractical. So this kind of failure is part of what we do, or what we should be doing. Accept it. I am by no means advocating that we should reward failure by handing out obscenely large bonuses as seems to be happening to CEOs and Chairmen in the banking and finance industries. I am advocating that we accept failure and treat it as an unavoidable aspect of being innovative.

Jeff Bezos: “You have to be wiling to repeatedly fail—and to be misunderstood”

None of this is meant to say that all we have to do is rid ourselves of fear-inducing managers, or anti-innovative organisations, and all will be sweetness and light. Some people carry the fear of failure regardless of the organisation they belong to. This is neither good nor bad, but simply that people who are afraid of failing will never be innovators.