Kakorrhaphiophobia, or the fear of failure and rejection, is one of the most common mental ailments plaguing Americans today. It’s also one of the most under-reported, largely because we live in a culture of perfectionism. Our societal norms are such that people don’t get much opportunity to fail, so how could we possibly be comfortable with failure?
What is the Fear of Failure?
Also known as the fight-flight-freeze response, the fear response comes from the limbic system, the oldest part of the brain after the stem. Also called the reptilian brain or the critter brain, the limbic system is charged with keeping us safe. Specifically, this is the job of the amygdala, an almond-sized gland buried deep in the brain.
Back in the days of our cavemen ancestors, the limbic system played a crucial role in the survival of the species. With the limbic system on alert for danger, we could assess in microseconds whether the thing we were looking at could kill us. Obviously, this was very useful. Our ancestors stayed alive, procreated, and eventually, we arrived on the planet.
With just one small, annoying detail. The limbic system has a major bug in its OS. It’s designed to keep us safe, which is great. But to the amygdala, safe simply means alive. It doesn’t care about the quality of life, it just wants to make sure we’re not dead. But that’s not the major bug, annoying though it is. The major bug is this: the only thing the limbic system knows for sure we can survive are things we’ve already survived.
That was incredibly important when our ancestors faced things like saber-toothed tigers, wooly mammoths, and hostile tribes. But it’s a bit of overkill these days when most of us aren’t faced with mortal dangers on a regular basis.
Every time we try to do something for the first time, the limbic system goes on high alert. I’m reminded of the Disney/Pixar movie, “Inside Out.” The movie depicts how a young girl handles her (personified) emotions when her family moves from Minnesota to California. Fear is depicted as a nerdy professor type guy who’s always freaking out about everything- pretty much spot on. The fear response freaks out a lot, and it also provides lots of “logical” reasons why we shouldn’t try something new.
That’s fine, as long as you only want to keep doing things you’ve already done and lived where you’ve always lived. But most of us don’t have that luxury, even if we happen to have the desire. The world is moving too quickly; things can and do change on a dime. In the workplace, the tech boom that has changed so many lives shows no signs of abating. According to the Washington Post, “In 1984, just 8 percent of households had a personal computer, the World Wide Web was still five years away, and cell phones were enormous. Americans born that year are only 33 years old.”
Companies that want to survive in the next 10-20 years must be committed to innovation. But with innovation comes failure, somewhere between 92-95% of the time according to a McKinsey study.
At NextGen Orgs, we believe that Kakorrhaphiophobia is at the root of most of the problems plaguing companies today. From lack of innovation to low engagement to an inability to scale past inflection points… even the inability to set clear goals, objectives, and KPIs can be traced back to the fear of failure and rejection. Companies that want to thrive in the future must figure this out.
What can we do to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the fear response? We’ve identified a number of things that can help, and we help our clients learn how to operate outside the cultural norms of perfectionism.
At a high level, it comes down to creating a culture of psychological safety, deep trust, and belonging. At the practical level, it involves mindfulness, creating a culture that actively embraces failure in order to glean the learnings and do better next time, and learning how to communicate more clearly, openly, and directly with each other.
Schedule a complimentary 30-minute session to learn how.