"The Reasons Why Many Change Programmes Fail”

Part 7

Fear of Failure

This month I’m looking at another reason why significant change programmes fail. The fear of failure itself!

First of all, it needs to be said that “fear of failure” exists at all levels in an organisation.

From the board members with concerns about delivering the financial results for the shareholders, middle managers defending their careers and frontline staff concerned about doing the right thing and getting punished for inappropriate results.

This fear comes from individual insecurities and also the organisation’s experience of previous change, which was discussed in last month’s newsletter. Also very importantly the style of leadership and management within the organisation too!

Unfortunately, many business cultures don’t reward ingenuity and innovation.

It seems to reward “Steady Eddie” progress and continued average results. Making a change in work processes to enable outstanding results is a change of culture and requires the thinking akin to ingenuity and innovation. But as previously suggested, these aren’t rewarded.

The only real exceptions are in Marketing Sales and Advertising, where ingenuity and innovation are everyday currency.

Usually, fear of failure manifests itself in individuals in the following ways;

  1. Failing makes you worry about what other people think about you.
  2. Failing makes you worry about your ability to pursue the future you desire.
  3. Failing makes you worry that people will lose interest in you.
  4. Failing makes you worry about how smart or capable you are.
  5. Failing makes you worry about disappointing those whose opinions you value.

Employees living in fear tend to tell people beforehand that you don’t expect to succeed in order to lower their expectations.

Once you fail at something, you have trouble imagining what you could have done differently to succeed. You often get last-minute headaches, stomach aches, or other physical symptoms that prevent you from completing your preparation. You often get distracted by tasks that prevent you from completing your preparation which, in hindsight, were not as urgent as they seemed at the time.

Also, you tend to procrastinate and “run out of time” to complete your preparation adequately. 

I’m sure you will agree that these are NOT the behaviours and feelings of effective proactive employees at whatever level in the business.

Therefore, breaking down the reasons for fear of failure and creating opportunities for innovation are key to general good performance of individuals and the organisation. In many change programmes, this is not considered to be a high priority, despite how easy it is to create the right environment to reduce the fear of failure.

The key activities in a change programme to reduce fear;

  • Senior managers must stop blaming people for getting things wrong in a new situation. Surely it is part of innovation to come up creative ideas and trying new ways of working. Not all will work!
  • Hold regular sessions/workshops for creative and innovative brainstorming, where people can be free to test new ideas without being implemented into the business. There are so many meetings in the business surely one could be replaced with this types of workshop.
  • Take some risk. If you are in an environment which is “intrinsically safe” the culture is risk averse, but this needs to be adjusted for every day management activities. There may be a high level of risk manufacturing bombs, but there is very little risk putting a different type of noticeboard up in the meeting room!
  • Measure number of new ideas and praise and reward people for different thinking. This should be led by senior managers.
  • Stop chasing numbers. Some managers find this hard to believe, but performance figures are outputs of the operation’s processes, not an input. So, telling teams to produce 100 when the process will only allow 80 is totally non-productive. The fear of not reaching performance targets is a prime example of creating fear of failure.
  • Try new things with enthusiastic people. The organisation will be split roughly into three different groups of people. Enthusiastic people, people who are a little concerned about change and a group who are dead against it! Start with the enthusiastic people, the middle group will go along with the changes once seen and then you are two thirds of people using new processes and ways of working. The third, third will be left alone and what influence the outcome.

If you would like to know more about how NewLeaf International helps organisations with Business Improvement and significant Organisational Development programmes, please make contact for an informal chat.

Martin Gummery, Managing Director, NewLeaf International Ltd

Tel: 01905 425209

Email: headoffice@newleafinter.co.uk