In our quest to help senior leaders, teams and organizations become significantly more effective than they are at present, we are always looking for new ways to help them get to the next level. After the last five years of coaching and consulting experience, working in 17 different industries and 15 countries around the globe, we’ve found the biggest inhibitor to truly exceptional performance should not surprise anyone.
We’ve heard the following types of limiting comments which tend to keep individuals, teams and organizations from reaching their potential:
- “I know that we are talking out of both sides of our mouth, but the (CEO, my boss, etc.) doesn’t want to deal with the issue, so we’re just going to have to live with it. Every time I bring up the topic, I get shot down.
- “I may get rewarded if we are successful, but it’s likely that I will will be fired (or won’t get promoted or won’t get my bonus) if it fails.”
- “We tried that before and it’s never worked here – that’s just the way it is.”
- And the most often repeated comment (which is disturbingly heard more and more often at the senior exec level), “Just tell me what you want me to do!”
The common denominator seems to be dealing with the challenges of fear of failure in a much tougher environment and the very real consequences in some organizations who have become more comfortable reorganizing, layering or firing execs, rather than encouraging them to learn from mistakes, innovate and succeed.
These kind of comments reminded me of a recent experience golfing on a course that is so tough that it features this world famous warning sign:
A PGA writer described approaching the first tee at the Bethpage Black course in New York with the following, “You are about to enter a tranquil, but brutal course that sports some of the world’s toughest holes.”
It has the reputation of being the most challenging public golf course in the US. As one of the greatest golf champions of all time, Sam Snead, once said about it in 1940 (and you can begin to see why in a recent US Open photo below), “it’s an unfair test of golf”.
When I saw that warning sign, I thought, “What an incredibly apt sign for our times as leaders for the past five years.” Perhaps a revised version might look like this:
So what can we do to help execs, teams and organizations overcome their fear of failure and become more exceptional leaders and performers? In our experience, here are a few tips that have been very helpful in a tougher business environment:
- Name and normalize what you or your team really fears – Steven Wolff in Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups has some very good advice for beginning to understand what you fear, “Being present means being aware of what’s going on and inquiring into it. I’ve learned to appreciate negative emotions—it’s not that I enjoy them, but that they signal a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if we can stay present to them. When you feel a negative emotion, stop and ask yourself, ‘What’s going on here?’ so you can begin to understand the issue behind the feelings and then make what is going on within you visible to the team. But that requires the group be a safe container, so you can say what’s actually going on.”
- If that doesn’t work, get a Navigator – a trusted mentor, peer or a coach to help you listen to yourself and objectively gauge where you are in helping understand what you are consciously thinking. The right partner will also ask you tough, but supportive questions to identify blind spots (e.g., limiting unconscious assumptions and beliefs) and help you figure out what needs to be done to be successful.
- Visualize what success looks like – In Warren Berger’s great article, Scared Of Failing? Ask Yourself These 6 Fear-Killing Questions, he quotes Jonathan Fields, a well know blogger, who says to ask yourself: “What if I succeed?” “That’s important because the way our brains are wired, we tend to automatically go toward the negative scenario. So in order to give your mind a chance to latch onto something positive, something that will actually fuel action rather than fuel paralysis, it’s helpful to create some level of clarity around what success in this endeavor would look like.” When the desire to succeed outweighs the fear of failure, you are headed in the right direction.
- Minimize the risks and embrace the challenge - In the book FLOW: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, the author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about those who choose risky adventures like rock climbing, hang gliding, race car driving (or golfing at Bethpage Black): “What is most striking when one actually speaks to specialists in risk, is how their enjoyment derives not from the danger itself, but from the ability to minimize it. So rather than a pathological thrill that comes from courting disaster, the positive emotion they enjoy is the perfectly healthy feeling of being able to control potentially dangerous forces.”
- Reframe your fear and use it to motivate yourself – Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver in National Football League history said in his Hall of Fame speech: "I'm here to tell you that the fear of failure is the engine that has driven me throughout my entire life. It flies in the faces of all these sports psychologists who say you have to let go of your fears to be successful and that negative thoughts will diminish performance. But not wanting to disappoint my parents, and later my coaches, teammates and fans, is what pushed me to be successful."
- If the worst happens, learn from it - In A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, the author says that when Stanford University’s Bob Sutton analyzes a misstep, “in addition to asking what went wrong, you should also ask, ‘In this failure, what went right?’ (Conversely, when you try out something and it seems to have succeeded, look for what went wrong or could have been better . . . The best learning comes from looking at successes and failures side by side.) In analyzing a series of setbacks, a key question to ask is, ‘Am I failing differently each time?’ ”
You’ll be happy to hear that I used almost all of these techniques to get off to a great start at Bethpage Black. I named my biggest fear – hitting a lousy drive on the first tee in front of a gallery of excellent golfers. I visualized success – a great drive deep of 270 yards and just left of center on the fairway. I played a more cautious game than usual to minimize the risks of the deep and numerous sand traps. And I reframed my fear into a very positive, “I’m the only one in my foursome who has ever played this course before. I need to keep everyone calm.” I led off the first tee with a perfect drive and . . . 100 shots later finished the round. I learned they were not kidding about “Only For Highly Skilled Players”!
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G Burns & Associates | 40 Ingram Street | Forest Hills, NY 11375