On Wednesday 26th February, our Women’s Forum hosted a breakfast discussion on the Fear of Failure. Held at 10 Finsbury Square, the event explored some of the typical barriers to progression and the challenge of stepping out of your comfort zone. It was hosted by Angharad Kenward, Senior Director and Melanie Robinson, Manager of the Procurement team at Investigo.
The science of fear
Fear, it seems, is just about the most natural state for a human. Investigo’s People Director Sarah House-Barklie discussed the physiology of fear, the “engrained neuro-processes allowing us to react to danger in order to survive.” But as our world has changed, so has the nature of fear. Rather than “tigers chasing us,” she said, we now have a different set of fears that manifest in the workplace – the fear of not hitting a target or not pleasing our manager – but it’s the same physiological reaction.
So is there a difference in the way men and women deal with fear? Amber Bauer, founder of the charity Donate4Refugees, said that “women tend to feel they’re not up to something,” while men tend to have more confidence in themselves. But not having the same approach as someone else is no reason to feel inferior. “We’ve all got something to offer – it’s just different.”
Relating his own experiences of public speaking – particularly apt under the circumstances – Investigo’s CEO Nick Baxter said: “So much of fear is irrational. We don’t fear the task, we fear the consequences of failure.” The key, he said, is “turning that fear into a positive” – using it as motivation and planning thoroughly to make sure you perform as well as you can.
There was a consensus that fear doesn’t remain linear through a person’s life: it fluctuates with age and changing priorities. While children often hold little fear for activities like riding rollercoasters, adults are more conscious of the risks in their actions and are therefore more reluctant to do certain things. The more new things a person does, the less there is to scare them in their life, and so the less frightened they become.
Nick’s fears have altered significantly throughout his 17 years in recruitment. “When I was younger, I wasn’t scared of being successful.” But his initial reaction to the CEO role being mentioned? “Absolutely not! It was fear of the unknown.” From fear of public speaking, which he’d overcome through practice, the role of CEO brought a “fear of letting people down.”
A lot of this fear comes from Imposter Syndrome – the feeling that you don’t belong in a role. But Nick uses his family to drive himself on and when confronted with a new challenge, reminds himself of the things he’s achieved. “Fear is normal – it’s how you deal with it, how you respond. Failing is fine – but when it’s consistent failure, you need to look at the reasons behind it, get help and move on.”
A culture of support
The long-held stigma of showing professional weakness has softened somewhat with increasing awareness of mental health issues. So when is it okay to say you’re scared? In Amber’s mind, “It’s a strength. You should be yourself and feel comfortable, but there’s a time and a place. You do need to be able to show your vulnerability and emotions.”
Indeed, all our panellists agreed that this is part of a business’s culture. Investigo works hard to provide an environment where everyone feels free to be themselves: “a culture where people can be open and honest,” said Nick. As part of that, they should feel comfortable confiding in a peer if they’re having a difficult time. Sarah added: “Look out for each other. Don’t let people suffer on their own.”
What’s the worst that can happen?
Although it’s the kind of phrase that generally precedes some kind of reckless behaviour, it’s actually a good philosophy for facing new challenges. Nick cited hitchhiking across America before he joined the working world. “Failure is a part of success. You have to fail to succeed. We have a duty of care to make sure you don’t continue to fail,” he said. “Failure is a part of who we are and the world we live in.”
Amber talked about visiting a mistreated refugee in a Greek prison to pass on the wishes of his friends and family. Although it was a frightening, isolated and intimidating experience at the time, the man has since become a friend. It’s this kind of altruism that forms the basis of a lot of Amber’s work. “If you want to become more confident, do something outside your comfort zone,” she said. Challenging yourself in all aspects of your life will make your work life a lot less scary.
Fear of failure – or anticipation of success?
Sarah stressed the significance of definitions and how much they affect the way we look at things. She warned that we should be careful with our use of the word ‘failure,’ being less concerned about doing things wrongly and more concerned about doing things better. “Change what is recognised as a failure into a positive. It’s always about improvement.”
“It’s a perceived risk,” added Amber. “If I don’t take this risk, what will happen? It’ll either be fine or it won’t go well and I’ll learn from it. Worry about what you can control. What’s worrying me and what can I do about it?” As you get better at something, the fear of failure disappears.
Sarah felt the easiest way of dealing with fear is to rationalise it, to break it down – what specifically are you worried about and what can you do about each of your concerns? It comes back to the analogy of public speaking. If you plan a presentation as well as you can, you’re giving yourself the best possible chance of doing a good job. And as you go along, you’ll become more and more comfortable with situations like these. “Fear is only a wall,” said Sarah. “Freedom is on the other side of that.”
Many thanks to all our speakers and to our attendees for a very useful discussion. Keep an eye out for details of our next event in the near future.