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Fail Like a Winner

by on May 9, 2013

I’m afraid I have some bad news for the library community. Collectively we are suffering from a rampant case of atychiphobia: a persistent fear of failure. Its primary indicator is “a reluctance to try new things or get involved in challenging projects.”[i] Symptoms may also include anxiety, procrastination, feet dragging, low confidence, and/or debilitating perfectionism.[ii]

We are not alone in this diagnosis. Fear of failure afflicts such a large portion of the population that it could be considered “the human condition.” Individuals struggle to overcome it every day in their personal and professional lives. However, it becomes particularly insidious when it is institutionalized. Systemic atychiphobia paralyzes organizations by stifling motivation, suppressing ingenuity, and reinforcing the status quo. According to Alina Tugend, author of the book Better By Mistake: the Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, “such a mindset… creates workplaces where taking chances and being creative while risking failure is subsumed by an ethos of mistake-prevention at the cost of daring and innovation.”[iii] While this condition cannot be cured, we can take steps to counteract its immobilizing effects.

At the organizational level, library administrators can adjust policies, processes and procedures to nurture a safe environment for courageous enterprises. For example:

  • žOpenly discuss future directions at meetings and welcome staff to play concrete roles in achieving those visions.
  • žEncourage employees to imagine, plan, and test low-risk/no-cost changes without approval and with minimal interference.
  • žFor risky/high-cost propositions, set aside office hours during which staff can pitch their ideas to their immediate supervisor(s) and – if necessary – their Assistant Director or Director.
  • Support employee efforts by providing training, offering constructive (as opposed to critical) guidance, and – whenever possible – supplying adequate funding.
  • Use performance reviews to reward initiative and neutrally evaluate results, rather than punish disappointments.
  • Incorporate realistic room for error and learning into strategic plans.

At the individual level, librarians and support staff can adjust attitudes and approaches to defuse their own and others’ fear of failure. For example:

  • ž  Set challenging but reasonable goals and outline how they could be achieved.
  • ž  Brainstorm possibilities with fellow employees to build excitement, fine-tune the intention, and recruit assistance.
  • ž  If a promising idea becomes overwhelming, break it down into small increments that can be implemented gradually over time.
  • ž  If change is imposed, not voluntary, consciously analyze any resistance that arises. Legitimate concerns should be clearly communicated to the party in charge. Recognize insubstantial opposition as unproductive and move on.

žRemember that failure will not bring about the end of the world. It may breed discomfort and ill feelings for a while, but eventually that will fade. The suggestions above do not guarantee success by any means. In fact, they are likely to cause a rash of missteps, mistakes, and misadventures. The point is, that’s okay. The benefits of exposing ourselves to failure far outweigh the alternative: hunkering down in mediocrity. Research shows that organizations thrive on such enlightened vulnerability.[iv] That is how we grow our capacities, improve processes, pioneer new products and services, and revolutionize industries.

[i] Mind Tools, “Overcoming Fear of Failure,” accessed April 14, 2013, http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/fear-of-failure.htm.

[ii] Mind Tools, “Overcoming Fear of Failure,” accessed April 14, 2013, http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/fear-of-failure.htm.

[iii] Alina Tugend, Better By Mistake: the Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong (New York, NY: Riverhead Books: 2012), 2-3.

[iv] Paul Schoemaker and Robert Gunther, “The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes,” accessed April 14, 2013, http://hbr.org/2006/06/the-wisdom-of-deliberate-mistakes/ar/1