I’m a Chicago Bears fan, and we just had a brutal season. For the last 20 seasons, I have shared the highs and lows of my favorite team with fellow fans at a bar in Burbank. In an environment like that, people always have their signature cheer or saying. One guy always yells to the screen, “Don’t be afraid to be great!”
This saying was ugh-inspiring with its motivational poster feel and oddly appropriate at times with the mistakes the team often made. While the Bears were not failing out of fear of success, the same isn’t always true of your employees. Fear of success is a common reason for failure.
For some people, failing and the feeling of disappointment has become a familiar state. For others, the excitement of success (or anticipation of what it may feel like) reminds them of a sensation that they find scary or uncomfortable. And others may be concerned about what happens next if they are in an environment where the reward for success is a ridiculous increase in goals.
Most people are not consciously aware of this fear. If you have a team member that keeps falling short of a goal that seems to be well within their ability, try asking some questions about their experiences with fear and failure. Try questions like:
“Tell me about a time when you won something, whether it was finishing a big project, completing an assignment, or winning a game.”
“What do you think might be some of the downsides of success? Do you believe there are ways that winning can seem to bite you?”
“When you’re expected to be successful at something what do you think about most: avoiding disappointing the person who is expecting you to succeed, or what is next for you once you do succeed?”
There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. They are designed to start a conversation about the flip side of success. Your team member may not be thinking along those lines but acknowledging that there is a cost to success creates the space for them to be honest about their fears.