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Fear of failure at work? See things as a learning process

fear of failure at work

Clammy hands, heart racing, sweatiness, avoidance behaviour. People who suffer from fear of failure face many challenges in the workplace. What can you do to help yourself in such situations?

When you are struck by fear of failure, you will have trouble thinking straight. It is as if the anxiety has erased everything you know. This is particularly inconvenient when you are about to give an important presentation or update your boss on the progress of a project. The fear will also affect your performance.

Fear of failure is worrying about the consequenses of not succeeding at something

Fear of failure is a phobia that develops gradually in life, says Arjan van Dam, psychologist and the author of a book entitled 'The Art of Failing'. “As you become more aware of your social environment, the fear of failure will also develop.” That is where the problem lies, according to Van Dam. “Fear of failure is a severe kind of worrying about the consequences of not succeeding at something. A common example are exams, because if you fail your exams, you won’t graduate. At work, failing has social consequences and factors such as status, recognition, and appreciation also come into it.”

Fear of failure slows down our ‘working memory’

Our capacity for conscious thought is limited, Van Dam explains. “A computer has a working memory and is able to function properly with 1 or 2 programs running, but with 10 programs open at the same time, the computer will start to get sluggish. People who suffer from fear of failure basically have multiple programs open all the time, including the ones that run their fear of failure and the associated worrying. As a result, their overall performance will not be optimal.”

While there is plenty of data on fear of failure in children and teenagers (one in ten teenagers aged between 13 and 18 suffer from fear-related disorders such as fear of failure according to the Netherlands Youth Institute), such data is unfortunately lacking when it comes to fear of failure in adults.

Avoidance, self-handicapping and procrastination: manifestations of fear of failure

Citing a study by payroll provider Paychex, Forbes Magazine published an article that said that over 60 percent of workers in the US experience stress in the workplace for three or more days a week. In people with a fear of failure, stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways. One well-known way is self-handicapping, Van Dam explains. “Imagine you have an important meeting at work tomorrow and you go out for drinks the night before, and you have quite a few drinks. Before even having the meeting, you now already have your excuse why the meeting did not go well.”

Avoidance to eliminate failure

Another manifestation is the opposite, avoidance. “This is when you avoid any kind of effort. You do not want to take the lead or stand out, neither in a positive sense, nor in a negative sense.” Some people take such avoidance to the extreme. When it becomes tricky to avoid effort at work after some time, they quit their job.

Fear of failure is particularly strong in situations where people have to do things they are not good at. This leads to procrastination and attempts to pass tasks on to someone else. This costs employers a lot of money. Data compiled by a British company called RateSetter in 2015 shows that procrastination in the workplace costs British businesses a total of 76 billion pounds every year. They worked out that the average employee wastes 43 minutes every day on postponing tasks and jobs, which equals nearly 10% of a 7.5-hour working day and adds up to 3.35 hours a week.

Fear of failure generally leads to less enjoyment in life

This is not only bad for business, it also affects employee well-being, according to Van Dam. “People who suffer from fear of failure generally find less enjoyment in life, which is a fairly hefty price to pay. They sacrifice productivity and do not make the most of their qualities. So, it goes further than merely being afraid at work.”

Help yourself overcome fear of failure: become aware

If you show signs of fear or failure, there are ways to help yourself. “It is all about identifying anxiety and becoming aware of it. You need to figure out what thoughts are causing this sensation of anxiety.” That’s not easy, Van Dam agrees, “you can hardly pull yourself out of the swamp by your hair. We’re talking thoughts and beliefs that you have to fight against." Cognitive therapy can help overcome these kinds of obstacles, according to Van Dam. He goes on to stress that self-confidence will only grow when you take on challenges and learn new things. “That’s always a process of trial and error.”

More self-confidence helps, but will only grow if you take on a challenge

But Van Dam also has another method. “Try to take everything as a learning process, as a learning goal. I always compare it to taking piano lessons. Imagine you are a good pianist and you are performing a piano concert at Royal Albert Hall, and you have rehearsed at length. During the concert, you hit three notes entirely wrong, and you are so ashamed that you never want to go on stage ever again. But missing three notes in class is not considered failure. Instead, you’ll just think to yourself ‘oh that’s a tricky part, I’ll practise it some more.’ And you’ll discuss with your piano teacher what went wrong. If you take this same approach to life in general, and consider everything a learning process, you will be less affected when you don’t get something right. People who live that way have more enjoyable lives.”

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