Wondering About the Fears of Success and Failure

As a executive coach, it is not unusual for me to talk about fear. But I got to thinking about how decision-makers deal with their fears of success and failure after reading a post by Padraig O’Morain in The Irish Times. Eliminating these fears is very popular in self-development. For example, if you do a Google search of “fear of failure”, there are over 88 million results. For the “fear of success”, there are over 140 million results. Certainly fear can be a paralyzing agent but could it serve a business purpose? Could there be more to these fears?


Fear of Failure: Otherwise known as atychiphobia and it is on a spectrum so it may be debilitating for some and a hindrance for others. Basically, it is the reluctance to try something new or different because potential failure is perceived as too difficult to cope with.

Fear of Success: This term was first put forth by Martina Horney. M. Pappo further posited that this fear was goal oriented but people withdraw before achievement. It is frequently manifested by a person setting a goal, working towards it and then just before successfully achieving it, they sabotage the performance or simply give up.

Risk aversion and the fears

Risk assessments are part of any business decision as a matter of course. What might not be so readily apparent is the role of emotions in our decisions. In recent research, neuroscientists highlighted that we make decisions based on our ability to compute and analyze data as well as “at a gut or emotional level.” No matter how logical we go about a decision, we bring our analogies, experience and emotions with us.

If emotions and fears are playing a part in decision-making….

Proponents of developing emotional intelligence in leaders (full disclosure: I’m a keen advocate) acknowledge that there is a less than logical aspect to decision-making. This can be modified but what if we’re missing a more important question?

In my training to be a coach, we talked about how our ideas, beliefs and concepts are encapsulated. We create an overarching concept to hold all of the pieces. It could be that the fears of success and failure are really holding other more specific fears such as:

  • fear of rejection
  • fear of change
  • fear of power
  • fear of loss
  • fear of abandonment
  • fear of being different
  • fear of mediocrity
  • fear of making mistakes
  • fear of disappointing others
  • fear of being asked to do more
  • fear of being corrupted/selling out
  • fear of not being good enough
  • fear of imperfect performance
  • fear of mishandling pressure

And this list could go on and on.

It is possible that by oversimplifying or calling these fears something else, decision-makers are really handicapping the growth of their companies, preventing innovation and preventing their personal growth. For example, a serial entrepreneur who jumps from one startup to the next could be fearful of how he/she might lead a company to become an established company. Another example is the small business owner who simply does what is necessary to pay the bills and avoids publicity or attracting the ideal customer.

Managing fears is an important developmental process

Nobody intends to sabotage their own growth or the growth of the company. Sometimes we take on more than our resources can manage. Sometimes we let something slip away. But without identifying what is specifically going on, we run the risk of oversimplifying our fears and not addressing them properly accurately. There may even be a positive effect these fears have on the behavior of decision-makers. Do they provide an impetus to grow or the brakes to avoid disaster? Eliminating or reducing their power over our behaviour is a positive step and this requires greater self-awareness and understanding of human behaviour. So, do the fears of success and failure really exist or are they really encapsulated concepts of other fears?

What words or phrases enable someone with a fear of failure or success to avoid potentially risk experiences?

What do decision-makers say about risk-taking that might reveal their fears?

What positive purpose could fear of failure/ success provide?

What relationship does the fear of mediocrity have with the fears of failure and success?

How does the fear of mediocrity affect business decision-making?


About the author:  Elli St.George Godfrey, founder of Ability Success Growth, small business coach and executive coach, is the host of KaizenBiz. I’m passionate about business becoming a more human-centered place so I host this chat to connect business ideas and develop people.This passion shows up in my work with my clients. Whether you are expanding locally or internationally, Ability Success Growth guides established small business owners and executives to unlock the CEO within during times of transition and growth.


2 thoughts on “Wondering About the Fears of Success and Failure

  1. Pingback: How To Beat The Fear of Failure

  2. Underlying much of this is a lack of confidence. But as Chanelle Schneider (@WriterChanelle) pointed out two other fears that may be behind a lack of action, “…fear of backlash or lost support.” With this in the background, there were recommendations to use critical thinking and do a risk assessment. Some of this may depend on the size of your organization and the type of task you are avoiding.

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