Leading Change: Breaking Through the Fear of Mistakes

The word fear ingraved in a white background

“The team is already four months involved in this change process. They are informed in detail about the reasons for the change and the objectives that were set by the executive board. The phase of ‘not knowing’ or ‘not understanding’ has passed long time ago. There is full and total awareness of the ‘why’ of the change, of the plan, of the steps to follow and of the goals. But still they are not really progressing. They work so slowly. Always reporting delays. Taking so much time to finish simple activities. They do not show any sense of urgency!”

“We just do not have enough resources and time to achieve this change successfully. Everybody is under extreme pressure and is slowly coming to the point of breaking down. We can just not do it like this.”

“It is not our fault! They are the ones that gave us the wrong input. How could we know that it was wrong? Don’t blame us, blame them.”

“You know how easily upset he gets when you say something about his work. That is why I tell you now outside the meeting so you can take it up with him. I didn’t mention it in the meeting because I don’t want to come across as if I’m criticizing him. But you agree with me that he could do a better job, don’t you?”

These are four examples of situations that can occur when you are leading change. At first sight they might look different and not related. Just four types of behavior that have a negative impact on the change process and that need leadership attention. But if you take a closer look at the mechanisms that take place behind these behaviors you might find an underlying root cause. And this root cause is seriously hindering or even blocking successful change to happen.

One of the most underestimated reasons for change to fail is the fear of failure.  Fear of failure can be deeply embedded in the organization. In the way targets are set, in the way performance and success is managed, in the way people are empowered, in the way people and teams deal with responsibility. And many organizations are not aware of this fear and its consequences.

Quote of Winston Churchill

Throughout our lives we are ‘trained’ to avoid mistakes. If you want to do something good you do it right. If you make a mistake it goes wrong. So you avoid making mistakes. These ‘training’ starts already at school where the teacher very clearly shows us with his red marker what mistakes we made (Ouch, don’t do it again). Of course, if you can choose between making a mistake and doing it right you probably choose the latter. That is normal. For instance, when we are talking about situations that affect our safety or our health we definitely want to avoid mistakes. When we talk about situations that have a clear one-dimensional distinction between right and wrong and when we have the opportunity to choose upfront, of course we want to avoid mistakes.

But what if we are confronted with potential changes that we cannot predict upfront? What if we encounter challenges that we never met before and do not know exactly how to deal with? What if we are part of 21st century organizations that operate in globalized market places that are more complex and fast changing than ever before? What if we can only find out what works well and what doesn’t by exploring and through ‘learning by doing’?

If people perceive making mistakes as a failure. If they perceive the feedback they receive on their work as an indication of personal failure, and if they hesitate to give feedback to others because next time they could be the one under fire. In that case it is very likely that situations as described at the top can occur.

Successful leaders understand that leading change in today’s organizations depends to a large extent on the ability to learn quickly from new situations, on creating resilience and flexibility in dealing with changes, on being ready to expect the next change. They are focused on supporting people to learn to expand their comfort zones and to grow. They pay attention to preparation and planning, but even more to creating a culture where teams and individuals learn how to react effectively to unforeseen circumstances and to uncertainties.

These leaders understand that making mistakes is a normal part of learning and growing. They do not think about failure when people make mistakes in the process of learning. They expect their people to explore and to try new ways. They know mistakes can happen, that it’s not always pleasant, but that it is the vital fuel for growth and for reaching excellence.

Imagine how these leaders react to the examples at the top:

  • They do not react disappointed, instead they show confidence in the team;
  • They do not put more pressure on the existing planning and the targets, instead they stimulate people to analyze the problem and look for the facts so they can learn from it;
  • They do not blame people for what they should have done differently in the past, instead they encourage people to find out what they learned and what they will do differently in the future;
  • They do not jump in and start to take over actions themselves, instead they bring people together and coach them to find out together what they will do with the situation;
  • They do not automatically believe that lack of time and resources are the problem, instead they believe that learning how to improve our teamwork and collaboration will solve a great deal if not all the problem;
  • They do not think that planning and targets are holy and that failure is no option, instead they know planning and targets are prerequisites, but that coaching people to be able to adjust quickly to new situations is crucial and that learning from mistakes is an essential part of creating successful change. They don’t think in terms of failure.

The negative effects of fear of failure are described in various books and articles. Still many companies suffer from having a culture where making mistakes is easily related with failure. Its leaders play a dominant role in changing or sustaining this culture. Jim Collins describes in his article ‘Hitting the wall: Realizing that vertical limits aren’t’ the difference between what he calls ‘fallure’ versus failure (more specifically in tip #1). It is still one of my favorite reads on this topic and I warmly recommend it to you.

What do mistakes mean to you? How does your organization deal with mistakes? How do you turn mistakes into sustainable learning experiences? How do you coach your team in breaking the fear of failure?

Photo: hang_in_there/Flickr (Creative Commons)


As international business consultant, change leader and executive coach Aad supports companies, their leaders and leadership teams in turning complex change into sustainable results. He works with his clients on topics concerning leading change, cross-cultural leadership, post-merger integration, and amplifying business performance. Find out more about Aad and his services.

4 Comments on “Leading Change: Breaking Through the Fear of Mistakes

  1. Pingback: Change Is Good, But Not For Its Own Sake - PinPoint Performance Solutions

  2. Pingback: Accountability: A Leader’s Responsibility | The Search for Effective Leadership

  3. Pingback: Organization Development: The True Meaning of ‘People come First’ | Leadershipwatch – Aad Boot

  4. Pingback: Leading Change: Breaking Through the Fear of Mistakes « Learning Research & Change Methods

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