Don’t be afraid of failure

by | Feb 25, 2022

Clare Rudd, Unisure’s Consultant Psychologist, on why perfectionism could be harming employee productivity and mental wellbeing

Often in life it’s our greatest failures that teach us the biggest lessons. The same is true for the workplace, with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos1 famously advocating for failure – not only because it goes hand-in-hand with innovation and creativity, but also because it bolsters resilience.

Why then are so many of us afraid of failure? In the workplace, specifically, it’s because failure is often perceived as a weakness. We only want our colleagues and managers to see the perfect end-results of our hard work, and not the various wrong turns it took to get to that place.

The trouble is that striving for perfection can cause far more harm than good, both in terms of one’s mental health and long-term productivity.

The price of perfectionism

As Unisure’s Consultant Psychologist Clare Rudd explains, perfectionism can be a double-edged sword. While it’s good to set goals and work hard to achieve these goals, if taken too far perfectionism can lead to employees overworking themselves and sacrificing their job satisfaction. Perfectionism has us believe that the work we have produced is not good enough, she explains, so we end up re-doing it over and over again. This can lead to procrastinating on work, missing deadlines and even holding back on creative ideas due to a fear of those ideas potentially failing.

“Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. When you become overly concerned about doing things just right, you become risk-averse and unable to take creative leaps of faith. You are restricted to safe choices.” – Psychology Today2

The power of vulnerability

So, what’s behind our incessant quest to perfect our work, our relationships, our children and our lives? The answer lies in both fear and vulnerability.

In her landmark research on vulnerability, Dr Brené Brown explores the notion of worthiness and uncovers that people with strong self-worthiness have the courage to be vulnerable; they are able to step out of their comfort zones and attempt things even when there are no guarantees. As Brené Brown explains in her famous Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability3, in embracing their vulnerability and allowing themselves to be ‘seen’, “they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be, in order to be who they were.”

Let failure power you, not paralyse you

Dr Wayne W. Dyer is also passionate about the idea of cultivating a strong sense of self-worthiness and self-confidence and he is a firm believer that self-confidence can be strengthened through practice. In his book, Happiness Is the Way: How to Reframe Your Thinking and Work with What You Already Have to Live the Life of Your Dreams4, he explains that ego-dominated people view failure as something that immobilises them, whereas awakened people allow failure to mobilise them.

“When Dr Dyer writes, ‘I hear; I forget. I see; I remember. I do and I understand, and not one moment before,’ he’s reiterating that the essence of learning from our failures and achieving self-confidence is doing,” Clare explains. “His advice is essentially that if you lack self-esteem to do things that make you feel better about yourself, then do it again and again. Before long, you will develop confidence.”

You are not what you do

Something else in Dr Dyer’s book that resonates with Clare and with many of the corporate clients she counsels is not to equate your image of yourself with how well you do things in your life. “Dr Dyer writes, ‘If you are what you do, then when you don’t you aren’t. In simple terms, you don’t exist,” Clare explains.

“An important exercise for all of us to consider is whether we are our jobs and how much money we make. If our answer is yes, then we will likely face a big internal crisis should one of those things go away. But the truth is that the concept of failure is a judgement, and we only fail when we equate it with our self-worth,” says Clare. “True self-worth comes from having a great relationship with yourself and the belief that you are valuable and important. Ultimately, it all comes down to self-love, which is something many people are not good at.”

Cultivating a culture that embraces vulnerability

For Managers, HR leaders and business unit heads, perhaps it’s time to talk about failure and embrace it as part of your company culture so that innovation and creativity can flourish?

As Clare says, no matter what business we’re in, we are all in the business of people. “Our products and services are nothing without our people, and yet in my years of therapy with many corporate clients, I find it interesting that many businesses err of the side of not appreciating and valuing their people,” she says.

“I certainly strive for perfectionism in my job, but I think the difference is that I am not afraid of the repercussions when I fail. One of my greatest joys in working for a company like Unisure has been how everyone is valued, appreciated, heard and endorsed. Despite its incredible growth, Unisure has kept a very humanistic approach to running its business and that’s something that I’ve found really sets the company apart.”

Words to live by

For anyone wanting to work on themselves and build their self-confidence, Clare highly recommends Mel Robbin’s book The High 5 Habit – Take Control of Your Life with One Simple Habit5. She also challenges everyone to download Mel’s free e-book 5 Simple Habits to Change your Life.

“Once we start to believe in ourselves, an incredible shift happens,” she says. “I have used it with family members and clients and had great results.”

At the end of the day, leaders want employees that have courage and character. When confronted with a series of crossroads where the choices are not always that obvious, they want people working for them that don’t turn around and head for home when the going is difficult or unexpected. But in order to attract and encourage courageous employees, the culture of the company has to be one of embracing failure as a chance to learn more and be better the next time around.

“Stepping outside of the herd requires courage, and it may create waves of criticism,” Clare concludes, “but many big breakthroughs have been inspired by that relentless curiosity for self-exploration.”