Often, executives are offered coaching to help in the transition to a more senior position. However, in a recent study following 41 executives through the coaching process, almost half the participants said no to the opportunity to receive coaching (Ellam-Dyson & Palmer, 2011).
Why do we avoid doing things that might be good for us? And I’m not just talking about whether we decide to undergo coaching or not.
Previous research into avoidance behaviors has been linked to ideas such as low self-worth or acceptance, perfectionism, and low frustration tolerance.
Let’s look at self-worth and acceptance first. We all want to believe that we are worthy and valuable, so we might tend to seek out experiences that we know we are good at, rather than exposing ourselves to experiences that remind us that we are not Masters of the Universe. We could try and do things that stretch and develop us, but we may not be so competent at in the first stages – thus possible threatening our sense of self worth. It’s OK not to be great at something, but often people find the feeling of failure so threatening to their self-worth, they would rather not try in the first place.
Perfectionist beliefs such as ‘I must never make a mistake, and if I do I am a failure‘, can result in worrying about making mistakes and what others think of us, and fear of failure.
Finally, low frustration beliefs such as ‘Life must always be easy otherwise it is intolerable‘, can predict how people cope when faced with challenging situations out of their comfort zone.
Rigid beliefs like these can lead to procrastination, avoidance, and limited life experiences as people seek to preserve of protect their sense of self-worth. People can end up living quite narrow lives as they stick to what they know is OK for them.
In the Ellam-Dyson & Palmer research, it seems as though the biggest difference between the coaching and no-thanks-to-coaching groups was a significantly lower level of unconditional self-acceptance in the no-coaching group. If you experience conditional self-acceptance, any sense that failure might be likely means that you are more likely to disengage from the task you are trying to perform. Essentially, you decide that you’d rather not do the task, or try that new experience if it means risking a feeling of low self-worth if failure does occur. You would rather preserve your sense of self-worth just as it is, thanks very much.
What happens if you focus on preserving self-worth at the expense of everything else?
- It can interfere with your relationships as you tend to focus on yourself at the cost of others feelings or needs. Not a great recipe for leadership
- It also means that you see mistakes, criticism and negative feedback as threats rather than opportunities to learn, grow or develop. This means that you are more likely to turn down learning opportunities
- It can also mean that you may start a lot of things but don’t finish them. Once it starts to look like you might not be able to complete the task ‘perfectly’, you would prefer to disengage rather that risk failure. Some leaders do this too, and can find decision-making a real challenge, or avoid getting involved in setting directions for their teams
- Only doing things that preserve your self-worth can also be very stressful and have consequences for your mental health.
A culture where it ok to make mistakes is perhaps the best way of helping people to challenge this strategy of preservation of self-worth. An environment where risk-taking is accepted and where failures are recognized as opportunities to learn helps people to embrace challenges and perhaps reduce the fear of failure.
How can this knowledge help you? Perhaps by focusing less on goals that preserve your own self-worth, but perhaps instead encourage a curious approach to new learning that also contribute to others’ successes could be helpful for those in leadership roles.
More generally, fear of failure is very common. Who likes to fail? But if we can see failure as an opportunity to learn how to do things better, that might help. Changing personal cultures like this doesn’t happen instantly. Coaching conversations – with yourself or others can help.