Fear of Failure: Paralysis of Employees

by James P. Tate on February 28, 2018

Many times, in my consulting career I have seen good, knowledgeable employees refuse to act on a new project or to implement a change.  The first reaction to a seemingly recalcitrant employee is to just fire them and move on.  However, this visceral reaction is the wrong approach.  The first question to ask is: Why is a good employee who has been a strong worker, suddenly resisting change or forward progress.

This resistance can be a plain refusal to take action; or, many times it materializes as a slow down as the employee asks questions or bugs you for minutely detailed instructions before taking action.  Many of us have experienced this response.  The employee asks incessantly for detailed instructions on his assigned task.  It appears to us as if he is engaged in a deliberate “slow down” to avoid having to work.  We are constantly interrupted to answer questions to which the employee should already know the answer.  In some cases, the employee has already been instructed on how to preform the task.  Why is he asking the same questions over again?

The answer could be something as simple as fear of failure.  If the employee believes the project is important then he could also bear the fear that its failure could cost him his job.  To avoid this job loss, he wants to make sure he doesn’t make a mistake.  Oddly enough, his constant nagging for instructions to protect himself, may actually cause you to become so frustrated that you want to fire him!

Now we have defined the problem. How do we fix it?  The fix is a change in direction for you.  You must not fall into the trap of providing the detailed explanation and instructions.  Rather, you must work to engage the employee to develop his own instructions.  The employee must learn to fill in the details of your instructions and perform the work as you want it performed.

When he asks you a question, resist the impulse to answer the question.  While this may seem to be the fastest method to keeping the work moving on schedule, it is only enabling the employee to refer to you for every detail.  Instead, you should ask the employee how he would answer the question.  How would he perform the task given to him to achieve the end goal?  His first reaction will be to say he doesn’t know how.  This exposed his real inner fear.  You must be persistent and get him to volunteer an answer.  The answer will probably be wrong, but that’s to be expected, he is frightened of failure.  Coax him toward a better answer and when he gets close to the better answer, praise him for his response.  In this manner, your reaction will accomplish three results: First, it will allow him to engage in the organizations goal.  Second, it will build self confidence in his ability to answer future questions.  Finally, he will gain some understanding of your standards and what makes you happy in his performance.

Everybody wins with this result.  You now have an employee who is self-confident enough to act and work on his own.  You have a loyal employee who is devoted to the organization.  You don’t have to spend time hiring and training a new replacement for the employee you shouldn’t have fired to begin with!


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