Why do we fail? More specifically, what drives professional people to inactivity and a failure to deliver? A valid question when one considers how many times projects fail or are late, or when projected benefits fail to materialise. Perhaps this is most noticeable / measurable in an IT environment, but it is obviously a wider issue than in that one discipline or in a formal project context.
In most cases where failure occurs, these are the kinds of reasons quoted: lack of time; lack of resource (people, money, equipment); lack of direction or clear objectives; lack of skills or knowledge…though the last one can be a little risky to own up to in the modern working world..!
But what if there were another unspoken but legitimate reason? How about fear? What people will rarely say is “I didn’t do it / say it / deliver it because I was afraid”. If we are scared of something, what do we do? Make excuses; avoid making decisions; abdicate responsibility; delegate upwards; blame others… How many of us have succumbed to one of these whilst knowing in our heart-of-hearts what needed to be done or said, or what the answer was?!
Kids can be great illustrations of this: “I couldn’t do PE because my knee hurt”, instead of: “I didn’t want to do PE because we were having a competition and a) I was going to come last, b) I hate rugby, c) the other boys were going to kick me”.
In our professional world, hopefully no-one is going to kick us or make us do press-ups, but there are scenarios where we might - not unreasonably - be afraid:
• Fear of failure - We will try but, in spite of our best efforts, we will not succeed.
• Fear of ridicule - We will do something that might make us look silly in others’ or our own eyes.
• Fear of rejection - We find an idea, proposal or suggestion rejected.
• Fear of making decisions - We are nervous that we will actually be held to account for what we decide.
• Fear of going out on a limb - We do not like taking risks, especially when this marks us out from others as ‘different’, as we know ‘different’ can be interpreted in all sorts of negative ways.
All of these 'fears’ can lead to inactivity and thus a failure to achieve at some level or another. The fears listed above are either bad for our self-esteem and how we feel, or bad for our career. There’s an element of self-preservation behind them.
Of course, the other key component in all of this - and that which gives any fear context - is the culture in which we work. If the culture is nurturing, encouraging, forgiving etc. then we are more likely to feel protected and supported by it, and thus more likely to be less fearful. If, however, the culture is aggressive, blame-ridden, bullying etc., then this can only increase any degree of fear we might feel.
How can we overcome such fears? Clearly there is no single answer, because ultimately any fear that exists is our own, unique to us, and intimately bound with our experience and the situations in which we find ourselves. It would be very simple to tell ourselves to “pull up our socks” and to articulate a list of things to which we should aspire: to make a difference; to stand out from the crowd; to embrace risk and change; to communicate better… But, however wise such self-instructions might be, they are of little practical value.
Two things we could try though… Firstly, look out for those fearless people who find it easier than you to go out on a limb, try new things, make suggestions. See how they do it. Do they do it well? Are they effective? If so, try and learn from them. Are they approachable? Might they be able to coach or mentor you a little? (And watch out for the people who do these things badly, too. There are lessons there as well!)
Secondly; take five minutes to think about a situation from your past where you have wanted to do / say / suggest something but have failed to do so because you were nervous or fearful. Then try and replay the scenario in your mind but with what could have happened had you made that suggestion, or comment, or commitment. How might that have gone - both good and bad. Are there more good than bad scenarios? And for the good ones, how might that have felt? Exciting, perhaps? Exhilarating? Rewarding? Might where you / your company be now a better place as a result?.
If the result of this little exercise gives you just a modicum of comfort or confidence, then watch out for the next time you might find yourself in a similar situation and facing a degree of fear - and perhaps try it out for real! Challenge yourself. You could start with something really small, perhaps insignificant to others and which would be meaningful only to you. But if you can triumph over that fear and do something that makes a difference, then the eventual rewards could be great…