How Leaders Recognize the Signs: Fear of Failure

Fear of failure has several telltale—and observable—signs. You’re likely to set your ambitions too low or too high, explains entrepreneurship expert Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012).

  • Goals set too low reflect a lack of self-confidence and a fear of achieving normal benchmarks, he explains in a 2012 CNN.com article.
  • Conversely, goals set too high serve as a mask for your insecurities. Failure is expected, as no one could possibly achieve these targets—which means there shouldn’t be any criticism. Liken it to an attempt to swim the English Channel in rough seas: No one is expected to accomplish it, so we bestow admiration on those who try, yet fail.

Procrastination

Another key sign of fear of failure is a tendency to procrastinate as an avoidance tactic. If you can put off achieving a goal, you can also delay the dreaded failure. Look for unfounded hesitancy, second-guessing and finding “reasons” to delay or alter plans.

University of Ottawa psychologist Timothy Pychyl describes research that shows a direct inverse correlation between people’s sense of autonomy, competence, relatedness and vitality and their tendency to procrastinate in a Psychology Today article.

Other signs of fear of failure include:

  • A consistent pattern of indecision
  • Anxiety over risks or change
  • An excessive desire or attempt to control circumstances
  • An inability to delegate or trust others to perform tasks “correctly”
  • Perfectionism (often leading to micromanagement)
  • An overriding fear of “things going wrong”
  • Obsessing over details
  • Making sure everything is “just so”

Which of these tendencies resonate with you? They are fairly common among high performing leaders, and they are often behaviors that are rewarded by results. But at what cost?

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you.