Think Inc.
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Juggling act

Management's pursuit of employee
excellence requires a sensitivity
to fears of success and failure

Intuitively, every manager understands the need to manage the fear of failure. For, if employees are griped by this "disease," they will be very hesitant to exhibit a diversity of behaviors essential to any organization's growth and development. Anything that involves some risk, like trying out a new idea, a new skill, or even bringing some bad news to the boss, will either often be approached with undue hesitancy or avoided entirely. A lose-lose is the result.

The organization loses the short-term opportunity for a potential improvement. And progress not perfection is our lot in life. But the long-term consequence is perhaps even more important. Because the employee has suffered yet another lose of self-confidence, the probability of the future and continued risk-taking essential to growth is reduced.

Recently, however, a reader very astutely noted the relative inattention to another one of management's greatest fear-related challenges, the fear of success.

The roots of both fears go deep. Think back for a moment to your childhood. Did your parents ever "get on your case" if you made a simple mistake? If you tried something new and took a long time to get it right ... or didn't get it right the first time? If you only got average or below average grades in school? If you talked back to one of them? These kinds of early experiences plant the seeds of the fear of failure.

But, how can anyone fear success, you wonder. When I brought home a 95 on a school exam, my father wanted to know what happened to the other five points! If I got a 100 on the exam, he wondered aloud if perhaps the exam wasn't too easy.

What are frighteningly similar about both of these fears are their consequences. They leave the person gripped in them feeling: What difference does it make? If I try and don't make it, I'm going to get some form of punishment. From chewed out to maybe worse.

Now let's look at the other side. If I try my hardest and do make it, I may also fear I'm going to get some punishment. Only, in this case, it wouldn't be getting yelled at. Instead, it will be having to deal with such "rewards" as, for example, having next year's budget reduced and cut back by the amount I managed to save in this year's budget.

I may have to deal with even more unrealistic expectations for next month's work load because my team and I did a super-human job of meeting this month's goals with a staff reduced by downsizing. This one is particularly insidious these days.

More than one of my senior management-coaching clients has told me, with much chagrin -- since it violates their own sense of integrity -- how hard it is to really try their best. Because the reward of a job incredibly well done is another unrealistic mountain of work.

This entire dynamic reminds me of a booth at a carnival, the one where you had a rifle and were shooting at a bear. Every time your shot hit home, the bear would be sent off in the opposite direction. When an organization is "whipping" its people around in a similar manner, with the way in which it manages both failure and success, standing still in the middle of the road has to be safer. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with the middle of the road. It is, however, not the path taken by those in search of excellence.

It behooves every manager who would profess to be trying to lead a team in search of excellence to take a good look in the mirror and ask some hard questions. Does my own behavior encourage my people to deal with me face to face when there is a problem, particularly when my own behavior may be a part of the problem? When mistakes are made -- and they will be -- do I create an environment where the focus is on learning or blaming? When we achieve a success, do we take some quality time to really celebrate or do I say: "You're expected to succeed. Now let's get back to work."

As French poet and playwright Alfred de Musset has warned us. "Perfectionism does not exist; to understand this is the triumph of human intelligence; to expect it is the most dangerous kind of madness."

Irwin Rubin is a Honolulu-based author and president of Temenos Inc., which specializes in executive leadership development and behavioral coaching, communication skill building training, and large system culture change. His column appears twice a month in the Honolulu Star Bulletin. Send questions and column suggestions to or visit

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