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  • Natasha Harvey

Coping with fear of failure at work

When you take risks, you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” Ellen DeGeneres

  • Do you avoid new challenges?

  • Do you only work on projects where you know you’ll do well?

  • Do you regularly put off until tomorrow what you should do today?

  • Do you ever think you’re not good enough?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, rest assured! Self-doubt and feelings of insecurity about what we’re capable of are a common occurrence for many of us at some point in our lives. They may also be signs that we’re afraid of failure.

We define success and failure on our own terms – what they look and feel like is unique to each of us and intrinsically linked to our values, beliefs and ambitions. What I consider to be a roaring success at the top of my proudest-moments list, you might consider to be a day-to-day task or a stroll in the park. And the same goes for failure.

Being afraid of failure can hold us back from being the best we can be. Whether it’s reaching our potential, learning new skills, being creative or even leading a satisfied and happy life.

Have you ever met someone successful who has achieved everything they want in life, but has never fallen down and had to pick themselves up again? I haven’t. And the same goes for most great leaders. At some point, they have all faced the risk of failure and overcome challenges to reach where they are now.

Failure is part of life and key to our success.


Feelings of inadequacy coupled with a fear of failing can lead to anxiety and lack of follow-through on our goals as we attempt to do everything we can to avoid the possibility of failure. Put simply, if we don’t believe in ourselves and we’re afraid, we may fail from not trying. On the other hand, if we are afraid of failing but we believe that we’re capable of achieving what we want, we give ourselves the chance to succeed.

Finding the right balance of confidence in our abilities, accompanied with a healthy dose of fear (that comes with any goal that’s worth it) keeps us aiming high and allows us to take risks, the path to successful outcomes.

Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” C.S. Lewis

Fear of failure can often be part of the broader story we tell ourselves, built from our experiences in life – from feeling undermined by significant adults in our childhood to encountering difficult situations or events in our adult lives that have left a lasting mark.

When we choose to recall our successes rather than feeding our fears with the times we failed, we boost our sense of competence. Not only does this help us build a stronger mindset, it also helps us be more resourceful, create opportunities and bolsters our ability to take calculated risks.


Having difficulty in dealing with low self-confidence and fear of failure?

Try the following tips.

  1. Name your fear and try to understand it – think about questions like what am I feeling/thinking? What is it that I am most afraid of? What is the worst that can happen? Usually the answer is not as bad as we fear.

  2. Tune into your self-awareness by noticing your internal self-talk and the language you use. Then imagine what positively reframing those thoughts would look like – focus on what I can change, do or say rather than on what I can’t.

  3. Make a plan for what you want to achieve. Set yourself realistic goals and manageable actions. If your goal feels too big and too scary, break it down and approach it gradually. What’s the first small step you could take to move towards it?

  4. Look at the bigger picture. Reframe your goal in a way that is not all or nothing, but allows you to build in back-up options as well as learning objectives.

  5. Think about a future scenario where you have successfully achieved your goal. Imagine it’s happening now. What are you feeling, seeing, saying… Write it down – the act of imagining and writing a positive outcome helps us to feel more energised.

  6. Separate the negative “I can’t handle this…” story you’re telling yourself from the facts. Think about what you know to be true and create an “I’ve got this…” List 20 things you've 'handled' in your life so far – challenges or fears you've overcome, situations you've navigated or things you feel proud of.

  7. Talk to trusted colleagues or friends. Notice who demonstrates strong self-confidence and self-belief. Consider what they believe, say and do. What can you learn and how can you use some of these techniques yourself?

  8. Most importantly when you do fail, get in the habit of using mistakes to your advantage. What can I appreciate about what’s happened? What did I learn from it? What do I need to do differently to continue making progress?

Don’t let fear force you into inaction and missed opportunities. Start by trying to understand your fear, make a plan and take a small step forwards. As growth and comfort rarely go hand in hand, facing your fear of failure head on is likely to be uncomfortable. Let go of ‘perfect’. Be bold. Embrace the chance you’ll fail and reap the rewards of valuable lessons and opportunities when you do!

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Henry Ford

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