Nobody likes to fail. Failure can be embarrassing, humiliating and emotionally upsetting, so it’s no wonder we’re naturally inclined to avoid the risk. Unfortunately, the fear of failure can also be paralyzing, which is why—as a leader in my organization—I strive to give myself and others permission to make mistakes. Without it, how can we make progress?
Let me share an example from early in my career when I heard negative feedback about a person who worked for me. His clients called him indecisive and were frustrated that he wasn’t answering their questions in a timely fashion. As it turns out, he was paralyzed by the fear of making a wrong decision. I remember him telling me, “The client wants one thing, but I believe the right solution is something else. And I’m afraid that if my recommendation makes the client unhappy, you’re going to hear about it and be upset.”
He feared the consequences of making a wrong decision, so he made no decision at all. And, as it turned out, his lack of a decision resulted in his clients being unhappy—exactly what he was trying to avoid! Once I realized what was happening, I reassured him that I’d back him. I believe that it’s important for leaders to empower their team members to make decisions, even if they’re not necessarily the same decisions we might make. And if the decisions turn out to be incorrect, it’s important to learn from the mistake rather than try to hide it. The way I see it, unless you’re taking steps to move forward, you’re falling behind.
Though it hasn’t always been easy to overcome the fear of making a mistake, I remind myself of the things I tell my colleagues:
1. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Unless you’re a surgeon, most decisions you make during the course of your day aren’t a matter of life and death. Don’t lose perspective. If your well-thought-out decision doesn’t work, the consequences are rarely as damaging as you might fear.
2. Delaying your decision won’t make it easier. In fact, quite the opposite can happen. When you procrastinate over making a decision, anxiety builds. And before you know it, a relatively insignificant decision may—in your own mind—take on monumental importance.
3. Do something. It’s better to make a decision and change it than to make no decision at all. It’s much like what I learned when I studied chemistry in college. If you stay static, the environment will change around you, and you’ll become obsolete. In life, if you become paralyzed by the fear of failure, you’ll be left behind.
I also believe strongly in the need to reframe the discussion around failure. The very word—failure—sounds so heavy. Instead, I encourage people to think of it this way: If a decision you make turns out to be the wrong one, you didn’t fail; you just didn’t make the best decision. Pat yourself on the back for taking a risk, and learn from it. Nobody’s perfect. In most cases, getting it right 80 percent of the time is good enough—and it’s certainly better than taking no action at all.