Fear of failure is stifling workplaces

A decade ago, motivational speakers trumpeted to ballroom-sized crowds, “Don’t be afraid to fail!” CEOs told their employees to take risks: Be brave! That’s how progress happens.

We don’t hear that as much any more. Mistakes are expensive. Failure kills careers.

A recent survey confirms the kabosh on risktaking. According to AMA Enterprise, a division of American Management Association International, there is a strong fear of failure and risk aversion in the workplace.

And because people are afraid of being held accountable for mistakes, they’re also avoiding taking responsibility for their work. No one wants to be the scapegoat.

An AMA survey, which this year reached managers and employees in about 500 U.S. companies, found that fear of being held responsible for mistakes or failures was the single biggest obstacle to encouraging people to take greater responsibility.

To a lesser extent, the survey found that people were risk- and responsibility-averse because they felt the problems were ingrained in the organization, that there were no incentives to try, and that senior management was indifferent.

“This may be a trend stemming from the sluggish economy or the weakened job market, but management also plays a significant role in supporting the ability to take risks,” said Sandi Edwards, a senior vice president at AMA Enterprise.

Someone needs to be accountable for outcomes, Edwards acknowledged, but it behooves organizations and managers to tolerate disappointing results. Intolerance causes workers to crawl into their holes, to not try new things, to duck responsibility.

The same survey asked how to encourage responsibility (and thus innovation). The answers were what we heard 10 years ago: Encourage it. Measure it. Reward it. Make it a corporate value. Ideas bloom with — remember the buzzword — empowerment.