Getting rejected time after time, losing that client that is 90% to the finish line, not acing that project you worked so hard for…. At some point, every employee will experience rejection, disappointment, and failure. Especially in sales. As much as 94% of all sales effort results in outcomes that can be perceived as failure. If not managed correctly, failure can lead to sales anxiety, which in turn reduces confidence, motivation, and future sales.
Sales anxiety, not surprisingly, is particularly strong for employees who fear failure. And unfortunately fear of failure is common. One recent survey found that over 30% of adults strongly fear failure, and this number is higher for Millenials. Moreover, nearly half of respondents reported that fear of failure prevented them from achieving their goals. This is not surprising given research that anxiety and fear of failure lead to avoidance behavior, where people focus on avoiding potential struggle or embarrassment rather than actively pursuing growth and success.
In short, the cliche is true: if you never fail, you aren’t trying hard enough.
But how can you overcome the fear of failure? In the following post we will explain what tactics you can use to help yourself and your team overcome the fear of failure to decrease sales anxiety and more efficiently reach your goals.
Specifically, after covering some of the signs of fear of failure and sales anxiety, we will focus on how to actively embrace failure by:
- Acknowledging that failure is part of the process of reaching big goals
- Making failure part of a strong self image
As always our researchers have reviewed dozens of research articles from psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral sciences to bring you science backed tips and strategies.
Why bother? How fear of failure hurts individuals and organizations
There are several dangers when your employees encounter failure and don’t properly cope.
Reduced productivity. Fear of failure is not only unpleasant and paralyzing for the employee, but it is also harmful for the company in the long run. When someone is afraid to fail, their sales anxiety increases and they are less likely to take risks, try new things, and broaden their skill set. This discourages innovation and hampers employee development. This can lead to increased stress and frustration and decreased productivity.
Less accuracy, openness, and honesty. To prevent repetition and improve, organizations need to examine the reasons for failure. Employees however might be reluctant to provide a full and accurate explanation of what happened–or even to disclose failures in the first place–when they fear embarrassment or worse. For example, when employees are scared of failure, they may be less upfront about acknowledging how they contributed, focusing instead on external or uncontrollable factors.
Spread and organizational consequences. In addition, when employees do not properly cope and develop a fear of failure, this not only affects their own wellbeing and behavior but it can spread throughout the organization. As noted above, fear of failure can promote negative reactions and emotions ranging from decreased organizational commitment and productivity, to increased feelings of stress, anger, and sales anxiety. These negative emotions can then spread to other employees via what psychologists call “social contagion.” Essentially other employees can pick up on this stress, depression, and burnout and begin to feel it themselves. (You can read more about how emotions spread in this post). It is therefore crucial to teach your employees how they can cope with failure to protect your whole team’s wellbeing and productivity.
Signs of fear of failure and sales anxiety
Although it is essential for all employees to cope properly with failure, some employees might be especially vulnerable. They will already experience sales anxiety and a general fear of failure. But how do you recognize them?
Sales anxiety. Anxiety in general is characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. It refers to a feeling of nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome, and anxious people may try to avoid certain situations out of worry.
Anxiety can be directed towards specific situations, life domains, or interpersonal relationships. In general, you can recognize anxiety in the workplace when someone is showing signs of exhaustion, negative feelings towards one’s job, or reduced productivity. They also may exhibit physical complaints like sweating or a trimming voice.
- Giving presentations; speaking up during meetings,
- Keeping up with relationships; meetings, staff lunches, office parties, or
- Meeting and setting deadlines.
Fear of failure is a specific form of anxiety. To determine if you or your team has fear of failure, it can help to pay attention to specific symptoms that employees might be showing.
For example, some might show passive behavior. When your employees don’t believe they can successfully complete a certain task, they will try to avoid taking on new tasks. This may have a paralyzing effect, which might be mistaken for someone being lazy or disinterested. This is a signal that someone’s self-image is damaged. Perfectionists may be particularly likely to fear failure, thinking they cannot live up to their unreasonably high standards.
Another symptom is that they cannot accept compliments. If someone doesn’t believe in him or herself, it is hard to believe that others do. Lastly, self-destructive thought might dominate the mind when someone is afraid to fail.
This can be detected by a regular display of negative evaluations about one’s self and performance. You may hear your employee say things like ‘I am not sure I did this correctly’, ‘I could never do that’, or ‘I don’t know how to do that, so I won’t try’. The more energy such negative thoughts absorb, the less energy and attention can be given to executing a task.
Fear of failure can dominate many different situations:
- Being unprepared for meetings, not following up or completing actions
- Failure to assess customer needs correctly or make appropriate proposals
- Failure to deal with cost or to negotiate agreements
- Failure to close the deal or win the account
- Losing an existing customer
- Failure to reacquire lost customers
Being aware and acknowledging that fear of failure plays a role may open doors for working through it. The second step would be to employ tactics that promote effective coping with sales anxiety and failure. Which brings us to the first tactic.
How to tackle fear of failure
Leaders are seen as role models, and their behaviors signal how employees are expected to behave. How leaders react to failure is therefore crucial. If managers punish failure or don’t acknowledge their own mistakes, employees will react in similar ways. In such an environment, employees are more likely to try to avoid taking risks and hide failures to minimize the negative consequences. This only increases sales anxiety and reduces organizational effectiveness.
Acknowledge that failure is part of the process
(Fear of) failure might even unconsciously be triggered by management. Sometimes, leaders will avoid proposing ideas and discourage others from doing it, because they are afraid that it will make them look bad. When management reacts negatively to a new idea or a failed attempt it can create a fear of failure that limits innovation.
Fear will also keep people from admitting to failures that may cost the organization. However, leaders should encourage employees to be uncomfortable and teach them to accept discomfort as part of growth. Ideally, these failures are accepted as part of the process. But how do you do that?
The key is to promote a company culture in which you refine failure. Instead of seeing a challenge as a way to potentially fail, see it as a learning opportunity. By seeing failure as a part of the process reinforces the idea that even if things go wrong, the world doesn’t end and next time you will most likely do better.
First, you can try to reward ‘smart’ failures in addition to success. In short, a plan does not always have to succeed in order to be smart and well constructed. There could be external forces driving a success that are not always in control of your employees. You can promote employees to dare and try by rewarding thoughtful and well-executed failures. This is for example done in Tata Group companies where they introduced the ‘Dare to Try award’ and the winner got congratulated on stage by the CEO.
In addition, it can help to openly share bad news. By doing so, you make employees aware that problems will arise at some point, and this is not necessarily an inherently bad or avoidable thing. This way, you make your approach to risk-taking transparent.
After all, every leader has taken risks to arrive where they are now. Everyone fails and it is completely normal to do so, without failure there is no trying or succeeding. You as a manager should share your mistakes, explain how you learned to mitigate risks, and how you dealt with uncertainty. Let them see your decision process and let them know that it is okay to experiment and take smart risks.
Moreover, it is good to discuss what happened when someone or something failed. Why did it happen? What could have been done differently? Be sure to be open and positive about the whole experience, instead of ‘blaming’ the mistake on the inadequacy of the employee.
In addition, fostering a growth mindset can help employees accept challenges, overcoming obstacles and fear of failure. By encouraging a growth mindset –in which employees believe that they can acquire abilities through effort and study- failure is seen as a way to improve.
Also take a look at one of our previous posts where we discuss tactics to increase a resilience mindset. The confidence that you are able to ‘bounce back’ from failure increases risk taking and reduces fear of failure and sales anxiety.
Make failure part of a strong self image
Encourage the confidence to fail. In general, people tend to avoid doing things that can negatively influence how others perceive them or their competence. You could see this as a form of self-protection. If you don’t feel safe, you will avoid proposing ideas or speaking up when you notice a problem. All to protect your own self-image.
The problem with focusing only on self-protection is that it takes energy and resources away from active success. It can even turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy where fear of failure actually leads to failure. By overly focusing on the bad that can happen, employees fail to see and plan for how to succeed and win. Therefore, fear of failure can cause more ‘pain’ than the actual failure itself.
Fear of failure stems in part from a lack of self-confidence. Employees who experience fear of failure will not have enough confidence in their own abilities to believe that they can be successful. When you have the confidence to fail, you will try and therefore succeed more often.
One way to boost self-confidence and decrease sales anxiety is to focus on neutralizing negative self-evaluations. Thoughts like ‘I can’t do this’, ‘I will be exposed’, and ‘They will think I’m stupid’ will often come to mind when you have a fear of failure. In order to fight these thoughts, it is important to teach your employees to make positive interference when facing (potential) failure.
One way to do this is to help your employee recognize and replace counterproductive thoughts and negative self-appraisals. By teaching them to focus on cues that reflect positive information and not overly focus on (potential) negative situations or factors, they aren’t ‘locked’ up in their brain. This way, they are better able to use their attentional resources to solve problems and consider helpful information.
For example, you can teach your employees ways to assess the way they perceive themselves. If they are overly critical or often experience self-doubt, you may encourage them to change this mindset by:
- Practicing self-affirming techniques such as focusing on all the successes you have had in the past week or what professional skills you admire most about yourself.
- Making a running list of strengths and abilities and a second list of achievements. You could encourage making it a daily habit of reading through this list every morning or when someone experiences a moment in which fear of failure peaks.
- Praising team members when they satisfactorily complete work tasks or projects and when they handle struggles well.
Beware of over-confident employees who act like they never struggle. In addition, it is important to consider how you value confidence in your organization. Although confidence is generally positive, organizations should not reward over-confidence (especially when employees don’t have skills or plans to back it up) and should not encourage employees to pretend they never struggle.
In general, leadership should reward competence, not confidence. Often, management seems to mistakenly reward overly confident (predominantly) males as being competent. As psychologist Tomas Chammorro Premuzic said: “Arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group”.
By rewarding overly-confident leaders, you effectively punish others for lacking confidence or showing it in a more subtle way. False confidence can mask lack of competence. In addition, when someone ignores (or doesn’t even recognize) their struggles and weaknesses, they overlook opportunities to improve themselves and their performance.
When “showy” confidence is rewarded, it can create an environment in which people think that some “others” never fail or are perfect. This is not realistic or helpful and triggers a fear of failure. Instead, leaders should reward confidence when it is grounded in the ability to learn and do well. And leaders should encourage employees to show some humility, acknowledging their weaknesses and failures. It is therefore important to ensure objective measures and diminish biases when rewarding behavior.
Be aware of imposter syndrome. If someone secretly thinks that he or she knows less than others or is under-qualified, and it is only a matter of time before anyone finds out, chances are that this person is experiencing imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome refers to ‘persistent thoughts of intellectual phoniness’, and it is very common among high performing employees. Although it is more frequently observed among women and minority groups, men and upper management also suffer from it.
People who don’t deal with failure well are often prone to this syndrome. This is unfortunate, because it can provoke other feelings of sales anxiety and stress. Over time it even can lead people to give up on their careers, feeling not good enough, when in actuality they are objectively highly talented.
In addition, it can cause employees to underperform. When people are afraid that others will find out they “aren’t good enough,” they can be more prone to micro-managing their team, delaying decision making, procrastination, or insisting that all tasks are done perfectly rather than prioritizing. Imposter syndrome therefore leads to reduced performance and increased the risk of burnout.
It is therefore important for you as a manager to address the potential impact of imposter syndrome among your employees.
Often, when someone suffers from imposter syndrome, they are unaware of it, or are unwilling to admit it to a superior. Here are some ways you can help:
- Minimize pressure from social comparison. A little team competition can be fun and motivating. But also ensure that team members have individual goals. We recommend at least one goal based on improvement, and goals that are challenging but attainable.
- Promote social support groups among colleagues. In these support groups, mentors and peers can discuss negative self-perceptions and help each other. Shame keeps a lot of people from “fessing up” about their fraudulent feelings. Knowing there’s a name for these feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing. You can provide resources (e.g., time and space) to facilitate meetings, perhaps even anonymously, and
Openly discuss imposter syndrome. At meetings, share any personal stories or examples of when you felt you had to “fake it.” Or point out times when other people failed to recognize their own skills and values.
Summary of a counter-intuitive trick to decrease sales anxiety – embrace failure
In this post, you learned how to teach your employees to effectively cope with setbacks and failures and decrease sales anxiety. Fear of failure and sales anxiety don’t just feel bad, they harm employee and organizational innovation and productivity.
To encourage employees to embrace failure rather than fearing it, we focused on three tips:
- Acknowledge that failure is part of the process of reaching big goals. Encourage employees to take reasonable risks and learn from failure.
- Make failure part of a strong self image. Encourage confidence, but also reward employees for acknowledging and improving on their struggles and failures.
- Be aware of imposter syndrome. Ensure you don’t lose talented employees simply because they worry about their abilities. Create an environment that supports them.
Being in sales is hard. Setbacks and challenges are part of the job. But by creating an environment that embraces failure and learns from it, you can help your employees overcome sale anxiety and kick-start their success.