Regardless of whether you’re an entrepreneur, a manager or an employee, there’s one pervasive concern that seems to plague us all: fear of failure in business.
With our obsession with the social media comparison game running rampant, today you hear so much about the successes and the achievements of other people—and that makes failure seem like that much more of a dirty word, particularly when it comes to the business world.
But, here’s the thing that’s so easy to lose sight of: Failure is completely normal.
Seriously, ask anybody and they’ll be quick to tell you about a time they completely flopped.
Even further, fearing failure too much actually ends up being counterproductive.
You’ll be so paralyzed by your worries of coming up short that you simply won’t try at all—and that’s a surefire way to become stuck or to let those big goals of yours sit there and collect cobwebs.
So, what gives? Well, put simply, you need to loosen your stronghold on your fear of failure in business.
I assure you, it’s not. Let’s dive into everything you need to know about that dirty f-word (ahem, failure)—including how you can move past it with your sanity and confidence intact.
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Why Do We Fear Failure?
Let’s just state the obvious: Failure is embarrassing.
Not succeeding at something is almost always enough to make you feel not smart enough, not fit enough, not driven enough… the list goes on and on.
Failure on a logistical level can expose what feels like an inadequate, child-like or vulnerable self. ‘If I try and don’t succeed, everyone will know I’m _____.’ You can fill in the blank with your own worst nightmare—stupid, weak, unworthy, etc.
-explains Tina Gilbertson, LPC, DCC in an article for Psychology Today.
Makes sense, right?
Nobody enjoys feeling like they’ve been knocked a few pegs below everybody else or exposed as some sort of fraud or imposter—especially at work, where you know that your very own livelihood is on the line.
If you’re anything like me, your heart is skipping a few beats just thinking about failing at something in your professional life.
However, there’s a lot more to our fear of failure than simply not wanting to put our own shortcomings on display in front of our colleagues and peers.
Failure also represents that a lot more work is needed.
Think about it: When you succeed, you get to chalk that experience up as a win, brag about it at networking events or on your website, and pretty promptly move on with your life.
But, when things don’t pan out as expected?
It’s back to the drawing board to make the necessary tweaks and improvements to try to get that thing right.
You need to invest a lot more time and elbow grease in order to progress—and sometimes you need to do that multiple times.
That’s a daunting prospect, and it’s often the thing that holds most of us back from ever trying anything that seems intimidatingly challenging—whether it’s starting a new business or tackling a complex new project.
How to Overcome Your Fear of Failure in Business: 7 Key Tips
Alright, so your fear of failure can be rationalized. However, that still doesn’t mean it’s positive or productive.
I get it—saying that you’ll charge ahead unafraid of flopping is a lot easier than actually making it happen.
Fortunately, there are a few key strategies that can help you take a deep breath and look at failure as something that’s a little less terrifying.
1. Recognize That a Certain Amount of Failure is Healthy
You’ve heard all of the cliché stories about failure by now. Walt Disney was fired from his newspaper job for lacking imagination. Charles Darwin was considered an average student. So on and so forth.
In short, you’d have a much tougher time thinking of someone who has never failed.
That’s an encouraging message because it means that failure is a totally normal and necessary part of the growth process.
If you aren’t failing, well, you probably aren’t trying to tackle enough big and scary goals. You’re coasting along in your comfort zone.
So, feel reassured by the fact that—while humiliating at times—failure can actually serve as an indicator that you’re on the right path toward bigger and better things.
You might stumble a few times along the way, but at least you know that you’re heading in the right direction.
Flipping the script to turn failure into a natural part of the process, as opposed to the be-all and end-all of your success, will instantly make it a whole lot less terrifying.
2. Develop a System for Learning
Let’s expand on that idea for a moment. Failure is a natural part of the growth process, but it’s really only productive if you react to it in the right way.
Burying your head in the sand and hoping that nobody notices your blunder?
That won’t get you too far. Instead, you need to be willing to stare your failure down, analyze it, and figure out how you can use that information to do better moving forward.
One strategy that can be particularly empowering is to develop some sort of system for how you’ll respond to failure.
For example, when you realize something didn’t work out as planned, maybe you’ll ask yourself a series of questions like the ones below to pick apart that experience and find ways to improve:
- What went wrong?
- If given a do-over, what would I do differently?
- What can I learn from this experience?
Or, maybe something else—like a sit-down to hash things out with your team or a focused strategy session to form a new plan—is what does the trick for you.
Regardless of the specifics, take some time to think about (in detail!) how you’ll respond in the face of a roadblock.
Having that system in place helps to normalize failure and will empower you to view it more as an opportunity, as opposed to a dead-end.
3. Anticipate Potential Obstacles
One thing that makes the fear of failure so paralyzing is the element of uncertainty. Not knowing exactly what could trip you up and send your whole initiative crumbling to the ground is enough to keep you up at night.
This is why it can be so helpful to visualize any potential obstacles to success.
One 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology asked two different groups of students to write down what was in store for them in the coming week.
One group was asked to imagine that the week would be awesome, while the other was asked to write down any thoughts they had without being given an indication of how to perceive the upcoming week.
The results were pretty surprising.
The group of students who were given a positive outlook for the week actually ended up feeling less energized and also accomplished less over those next few days than the students who were able to just document their own thoughts.
Positive thinking alone is not enough,
-explains Vanessa Loder in her article for Forbes where she reported on the study,-
Research has shown that the best outcomes are created when we balance positive thinking with visualizing the future obstacles and struggles we will encounter.
Failure is often this intimidating, amorphous thing that we can’t quite wrap our arms around—we push it to the dark corners of our mind, like our neglecting to make eye contact with its potential will keep us safe.
However, by taking some time to think about any possible roadblocks you might encounter, you can actually reduce the amount of uncertainty, and thus the level of failure-related stress you feel—while also increasing your chances of doing a better job from the get-go.
4. Vent About Your Fears
We all tend to treat failure like a dirty little secret—again, it’s the thing whose potential we simply don’t want to acknowledge.
But, here’s something you absolutely need to know: You aren’t the only one who is obsessively worried about failing. Nearly everybody feels that way at one point or another.
So, rather than biting your tongue and playing it cool, sit down and chat about your concerns with a close friend, confidante, or even mentor.
Doing so can accomplish so many different things for you.
By putting your fears out in the open, you’ll relieve some of the stigma or shame related to coming up short.
When you openly recognize that failure is a real possibility, it eases some of the burden you’re placing on your own shoulders to achieve success immediately.
Additionally, your friend will probably jump right in and commiserate with you, which even further normalizes the experience. After just that one chat, failure will suddenly seem a whole lot less scary.
5. Don’t Obsess Over Perfection
My dad always likes to joke with me that low expectations are the key to happiness. And, in many cases, that actually ends up being true.
Think about it this way: If you set the bar insanely high, you’re leaving yourself a ton of room to experience failure.
Even if just one slight thing goes wrong, you’ll be tempted to write the whole thing off as an embarrassingly massive flop.
You’re making things way more difficult and anxiety-inducing than they need to be. High expectations can serve to motivate you in some cases.
But, if your own desire for absolute perfection only has you tearing your hair out, it might be time to lower the bar a little and give yourself some much-needed breathing room.
Make sure that you’re being as realistic and forgiving as possible with your success metrics.
For example, rather than thinking that you need to walk away from that big presentation with at least three new customers for your business, set the objective of gaining three really valuable pieces of advice you can implement moving forward. That’s a lot more attainable and can relieve many of your fears of not measuring up.
TIP: Breaking goals down into smaller, more manageable chunks is a great way to stay on track with your end game, without piling way too much responsibility and stress on your plate right away.
As entrepreneur Lewis Howes says in his article for Forbes,-
The purpose of these smaller goals is not to get you closer to your goal, but to develop the skill of belief. The belief that you can accomplish goals—not steps.
6. Think About Worst-Case Scenarios
Wait… what? I know that at first glance this tip seems highly discouraging. But, hear me out for a moment. Thinking about the worst result that could possibly occur when you put yourself out there can actually help you step back and get some much-needed perspective.
Ask yourself this: What happened the last time you failed at something?
Did your career come crashing down?
Did your whole life go up in flames?
In fact, in all likelihood, you were embarrassed for a bit and then bounced back relatively unscathed.
I’ll admit that the experience still isn’t fun. But, it’s also not nearly as terrifying as you’re building it up to be in your moments of doubt.
So, go ahead and think about the worst thing that can happen. It might be just the push you need to take that next step forward.
7. Imagine What Inaction Gets You
Do you know what’s often way scarier than failure?
Staying stuck exactly where you are because you’re too afraid to do anything else.
In those moments when you’re convinced you can’t do something because you’re too afraid of failure, consider whether or not the threat of failure is actually scarier than what inaction gets for you.
Sure, starting your dream business sounds terrifying. But, I’m willing to bet it’s not nearly as terrifying as staying in that soul-sucking job you hate for the rest of your life.
Over to You
Your fear of failure in business is totally normal—however, that doesn’t mean it’s something you want to continue to carry around with you.
Put these seven strategies to work, and you’ll quit white-knuckling your fear of failure and give yourself the confidence boost you need to accomplish those big goals that you have on your list.
Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.