Businessman doubts his next move
Some apprehension is healthy when running a business; and some will simply get in the way of success. Learn which fears are which and how to move past your fear of failure. — Getty Images/skynesher

Fear of failure can drive entrepreneurial success, or it can stall progress and drive a company into the ground. Fears may stem from worries about looking foolish, making a mistake or letting people down. But for many small business owners, the fear is simply rooted in lack of knowledge or expertise, said Susan Peppercorn, author of “Ditch Your Inner Critic At Work: Evidence-Based Strategies To Thrive In Your Career.”

Among Americans who see an opportunity to start a business, 35% don’t give it a go precisely because they fear failure, according to the latest annual survey by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. Whatever the source, fear of failure is a normal emotion in the face of unknowns, said Peppercorn, an executive career coach.

“Since SBOs [small business owners] have to wear so many hats, they often can't afford (or think they can't afford) to bring in the resources they need to solve problems that may challenge them, and may tend to do too much themselves,” Peppercorn told CO—. “No one can be an expert in everything, and expecting yourself to master everything sets unrealistic expectations.”

7 sources of fear

Entrepreneurs should not fear fear itself, but rather recognize it, understand it then learn how to manage, quell and even leverage it.

“Rather than simply stopping people from being entrepreneurial, fear of failure can also motivate greater striving for success,” noted James Hayton, a professor of entrepreneurship at Warwick Business School, and his Warwick colleague Gabriella Cacciotti, an assistant professor. Their interviews with 65 entrepreneurs uncovered seven sources of fear. Three were deemed productive, driving persistent pursuit:

  • Financial security.
  • Venture funding.
  • Opportunity costs.

But these four fears generated mostly negative emotions and paralysis through analysis:

  • Sense of personal ability and self-esteem.
  • Potential of an idea.
  • Threat of social stigma.
  • Ability to execute.

“Fear of failure is a state rather than a trait,” Hayton and Cacciotti wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

If you focus on the passion you have for what you're doing rather than what might go wrong, you are more likely to succeed.

Susan Peppercorn, author of “Ditch Your Inner Critic At Work: Evidence-Based Strategies To Thrive In Your Career"

7 solutions

Combining advice from Hayton and Cacciotti, Peppercorn and others, there are at least seven helpful fear-management skills that can be learned:

  • Redefine failure: Instead of expecting all the answers, characterize failure as not answering most of them to the best of your ability.
  • Set “approach” goals: Rather than aiming to avoid something you dread, set positive goals you’ll be motivated to approach (see how to set goals).
  • Grasp your emotions: Differentiate between actual, identifiable (and thus addressable) challenges and sheer anxiety.
  • Put fears in writing: Make four lists to compare: worst-case scenarios; ways to prevent failure; how to repair failures; and finally, a list of benefits and the cost of inaction.
  • Find and fix flaws: Rather than worry, put your energy to work actively identifying holes in your plan, and plug them if you can. Just don’t expect to resolve every weakness.
  • Educate yourself: To mitigate doubts, study up on the core technical knowledge related to a particular problem or opportunity, or more generally, learn how other entrepreneurs cope with fear and stress.
  • Seek support: Bounce challenges and anxieties off of mentors, friends or family.

“Perhaps you're thinking of making a capital investment or hiring a new employee and are wondering if the payback will be there,” Peppercorn suggested. “That's normal. You can counter that fear by talking to a mentor or someone with more experience to help you analyze your decision and reduce its risk.”

Most importantly, Peppercorn said: Remember that failure is part of learning, and if you don’t fail, you won’t grow. Just don’t dwell on your failures.

“SBOs started a business because of their passion,” she pointed out. “If you focus on the passion you have for what you're doing rather than what might go wrong, you are more likely to succeed.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published February 24, 2021