4 Steps to Rising Above Fear of Failure in Change Management
We’ve all been there. You want to introduce a new initiative – to shift your current management approach and try something new. But suddenly, doubt starts creeping in.
What if my team isn’t on board?
What if they can’t make the shift?
What if they don’t like the new approach?
Or what if my new vision fails spectacularly?
Let’s take a step back and talk about fear – specifically, the nature of fear and why we find ourselves getting derailed by it over and over again.
In 2019, all I could hear was constant self-doubt and second-guessing. I’ve been invited to speak at an industry conference in Spain. But once the excitement wore off, I panicked. I was thrilled to be asked – it was the first time I’d been invited to speak at a major event. But at the same time, my fear and insecurity completely paralyzed me to the point that I considered taking a pass. “Other opportunities like this will come along,” I told myself. “Right?”
Ultimately, though, I agreed to speak. I was able to separate fear and self-doubt from my rational side – the side that said, “you need to do this for yourself and your business.” So I took a breath, took a beat, and prepared to hit the stage. Which I did, hands shaking and voice cracking with every word (don’t believe me? Here’s the video…).
It wasn’t my finest moment. But I’m proud I spoke, even though I was (visibly) terrified. I can hardly remember a word I said. I was so laser-focused on the next word and the word after that – at getting from my (shaky) opening to my final nod without collapsing under the weight of my own fear of failure.
Our Natural Human Response: Why We Fear Failing
Whether speaking in front of your peers and colleagues, introducing new management practices, adopting new methodologies, or scrapping your entire strategy and starting over, change is scary. Why? Because, very simply, we’re scared to fail – and with that failure wind up feeling embarrassed. And that’s a tough emotion to swallow.
That worry is so significant that, when pushed, we wind up believing we can’t succeed. And that’s overwhelming.
I see this all the time – and the stakes don’t have to be sky-high either. I’ve seen countless people hedge when it comes to introducing new change management initiatives, especially when it comes to adopting Kanban. They don’t want to try something new and fail – especially if they’ve tried to implement other management approches, unsuccessfully.
And when that happens? That fear of failure can keep even the most high-momentum professional from doing anything. Even though it’s obvious their current processes aren’t serving them anymore, they stop and stick with the status quo. And nothing changes.
But we don’t have to succumb to fear of failure. By unpacking and understanding our emotions, we can overcome even the most debilitating fears, moving out of our comfort zone. Sure it isn’t always comfortable, but that’s where opportunity, achievement, and growth happen.
Balancing Fear and Fight – Shifting Away From “Safe”
Our fear of failure switch tends to flip when we don’t feel entirely safe – when we’re taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zone. Face-to-face with those hurdles, our brain goes into hyperdrive. If I can’t do this or don’t succeed, how will I feel – and how will others feel about me?
And when we do push forward? Often that discomfort starts setting in. It’s not comfortable. It’s not fun. It’s stressful. It’s like our fears are coming true with every single step. So if we weren’t completely paralyzed before, the further we go down the path, the more our temperature rises – and the more we worry about what comes next.
Here’s where the shift happens. Instead of leaning into that fear, flip the script. Don’t look at the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty as a bad thing. Look at these physical and emotional reactions as signs of growth. When we aren’t 100% comfortable, we’re learning, growing, and changing. So the more comfortable we get with being uncomfortable, the more opportunities we’ll have for growth.
How, then, do you calm your own fear of failure and reshape your perspective when opportunities feel overwhelming? Follow these four steps:
#1 Acknowledge Your Fears
The first step to overcoming fear of failure is to recognize and acknowledge it as a natural, biological human emotion. In other words, everyone experiences fear of failure, at least to some degree.
With that fear recognized and named, it’s easier to act on. When you feel that fear pause and ask yourself why. Is your fear definitely going to be realized, or is it just a possibility? If it did come true, would it be as bad as it is in your head? Could you steer away from those worst-case scenarios? With logic comes clarity – and with clarity often comes a more accurate view of what (likely) comes next.
#2 Reframe Your Mindset
Discomfort – and even failure – means you’re growing and evolving. Shift your mindset and really lean in. Because the more comfortable you are living with that discomfort, the more likely you are to take mitigated risks, challenge yourself and your teams, and push your boundaries. That’s when the magic happens.
#3 Start Small
Afraid to take that next initiative and introduce change? Why not start small? Break your goal into smaller, more manageable steps and focus on achieving those first. This can help you build confidence and reduce the risk of failure – and fear.
Perform one action based on what you’re seeing. If there’s aging work that’s been assigned to someone who is currently unavailable, jump in and tackle the problem. Or if the work is delayed due to a third-party dependency, escalate the problem. These all are very low-risk initiatives that can be performed on a team level. But those small changes can build as your confidence does, leading to bigger, more evolutionary shifts before you know it.
Confidence is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Keep building your confidence through bigger and bigger opportunities until you feel ready for everything that comes next.
#4 Celebrate Every Success
When you achieve that first quick win (see your WIP average age drop!), celebrate! No win is too small to raise a proverbial glass (or two). That positive momentum will support your confidence-building and help you start associating discomfort with these high-level gains. And that’s powerful.
Here is your action item: The next time you feel anxious about a new challenge, stop, and set a 10-minute timer. For those 10 minutes, just write – jot down everything you’re worried about – the actual fear and what you think could happen. Be sure and ask yourself:
What specifically is holding you back?
What is the worst-case scenario?
What would make you feel more comfortable moving forward?
When the first 10 minutes wrap, reset your time for another 10 minutes. During this “take two” you’re going to flip the script. Ask yourself, how can I reframe these fears so I’m in the driver’s seat?
If you can take control of the situation, you’ll be well-positioned to learn and grow.
With that clarity, it’s easier to commit and stay the course – to not just manage but embrace your fears and, from that place of power, keep growing and excelling.
I hope this article helped you re-think your emotions and, better, has empowered you to shift your internal dialogue and move beyond that paralyzing fear of failure. Be sure to share it with a friend or peer – someone who would benefit from this mindset shift.
Thank you so much for checking in with me today; I’m excited to see you again this Thursday for more managerial goodness. Bye for now!
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams improve their delivery speed through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.