Barriers to Change: Fear of Failure

Any change, no matter how well planned and executed, will involve some level of risk and failure—so organizations must make it safe to fail

At too many organizations, failure is not an option: stability and predictability are valued over innovation and risk-taking, and attempts to introduce new ideas are quickly shut down. And on a personal level, when someone does fail, they’re not just worried about momentary embarrassment: a mistake becomes a scarlet letter; a stigma. This may permanently tarnish their professional reputation at the organization, which will exclude them from future opportunities, or even result in demotions or social exclusion. 

Any change, no matter how well planned and executed, will involve some level of risk and failure—it’s simply a part of learning.

If you’re trying to instigate change, this is a disaster. Any change, no matter how well planned and executed, will involve some level of risk and failure—it’s simply a part of learning. In fact, research suggests that people learn more from failures than successes, especially when they’re engaged in a complex task and receive detailed feedback. 

But if your organization doesn’t have a healthy culture of learning and tolerance of error, people will avoid it at all costs. And we do mean at all costs—at its worst, this turns into a culture where people won’t report problems, and in fact, will actively hide mistakes. (And of course, hiding mistakes means teams will keep making those same mistakes over and over again.) 

In extreme cases, this can result in a culture of blame: when something goes wrong, people immediately start pointing fingers and looking for a scapegoat. Psychologically, it’s more comforting to blame an individual for a mistake rather than blaming the system or process—if we were in their situation, we assure ourselves, we would have acted differently. Unfortunately, we also interpret blame as as threatening as a physical attack—and when that happens, our critical reasoning abilities shut down and we go into survival mode.

The antidote to this, of course, is increasing psychological safety—making people feel that they can take a risk, like sharing a new idea or reporting bad news, without fear of reprisal. To turn this around, you need to redefine failure as learning, as well as define when failure is actually unsafe. To start changing your organization’s relationship with risk:

  • Designate what’s off-limits. Some interventions may be too risky at first: a mistake would significantly harm the business, and potentially eliminate the organization’s appetite for change. These changes (like reorgs, or processes that are critical to the functioning of the organization) should be avoided initially.
  • Break change down into smaller, less risky experiments. Fortunately, many, if not most, changes within an organization are “safe-to-fail”: they actually benefit from experimentation and iteration, like process improvements. Set guardrails (like only testing in one internal team first) and test more incremental changes so that any negative impact can be quickly recovered from. 
  • Don’t excuse recklessness. Encouraging failure doesn’t mean never blaming an individual—sometimes people do act recklessly and need to be confronted. In fact, allowing “rule breaking” (especially for particular individuals) can seriously damage team morale. One way to determine the right path forward is to use the “substitution rule”: what would a reasonable person do under the same conditions? If they’d behave in a similar manner, it’s probably a systemic issue; if their behavior is wildly aberrant, you must address it to maintain credibility.
  • Lead by example. Share your mistakes with the group, and discuss how you’ve changed your behavior in response. Just as importantly, be aware of how you respond in the face of failure, or even just a new idea—any platitudes about the “importance of learning” will be immediately undercut if you get upset the first time something goes wrong, or immediately dismiss a potentially risky experiment. Unfortunately, your reactions can often be difficult to self-assess, so you may need a trusted mentor or coach to help reflect on how you act.
  • Develop a Plan B, and a Plan C…. Hold a pre-mortem to figure out “what the worst that could happen?” If things start to go awry, how can the team respond? Are there any precautions they can put into place now to avoid the worst from happening? More important than identifying any one solution, this builds the team’s ability to get clear about shared values and goals so they can respond to changes quickly. This is also a good time to assess how “real” fears are—is there a genuine risk that your career will be threatened, or is this largely psychological?
  • Get better at reflection as a group. One of the simplest ways to reframe “failure” as learning is with retrospectives. Bring teams together to look back at a recent project and discuss what went well, what didn’t go well, and most importantly, what to do in the future—you can’t change the past, so there’s no point in re-litigating it or pointing fingers.
  • Rethink rewards. Your metrics may encourage teams to avoid failure entirely: for instance, if you track “number of incidents,” teams will go out of their way to avoid work that could lead to failure (even if that work is necessary for your organization), or they’ll attempt to hide the number of errors that do occur. Be realistic about the very human tendencies that your rewards and incentives are causing. Instead, consider things like tracking activities and rewarding those who share knowledge, like creating documentation for processes.
  • Agree to hold firm, together. While you should do whatever you can to de-risk a situation, at a certain point, to quote a certain sports brand, you’re just gonna have to do it. As with most change initiatives, getting buy-in and consistency from others within the organization increases its chances for moving forward. Find others with similar goals and mindsets, and agree that while you’ll hold each other accountable, you won’t resort to pointing fingers and blaming each other. You may even want to draw up some rules in advance for how you’ll respond the first time failure does occur. 
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