Fear of failure

Table of Contents:

The term “fear of failure” is often used, but rarely is it dealt with in any sort of depth. Fear of failure has been suggested as a reason why people don't put themselves forward to be challenged. Most explanations tend to be psychoanalytic and are generally based on the idea that people try to protect their psychological integrity. Therefore those dominated by the idea of failure will avoid any situations that might threaten their confidence and self-esteem. Sadly, there are few positive challenging experiences that do not have an element of risk. It is hard to succeed without risking failure. In a practical educational setting, fear of failure may be responsible for educational underachievement or for stalled career development pathways.


Competitiveness is often a very observable trait. It also gets the classic “poor press”, often being related to a “macho” approach to the world. Whilst it is clear that some people do get a great deal of
satisfaction by beating people, there are many others who express their competiveness in a different way. They gain a huge satisfaction from a “job well done” and a sense of completion. They are internally referent and have no real desire to compete against others, but a strong desire to compete against themselves. Our challenge component tries to take a broad perspective, ensuring it incorporates all aspects of achievement and competition.


Putting things off when we know we shouldn't is part of the human condition. However, some people do this infrequently, some do it all the time. In a nutshell, this scale reflects the extent to which we make promises, particularly those that are tangible and measurable, and the extent to which we commit to keeping them. Procrastination can be seen as a coping mechanism to reduce stress. However, whilst it can certainly help in the short-term, in the longer term it makes the situation much worse. This component of our model is the best predictor of academic performance in students.

But our approach to goals and targets (and indeed the same goal or target) can vary. It is clear that commitment is closely linked to goals. Goal setting is one of the great success stories of psychological research. Mento, Steel and Karren (1987) write:

If there is ever to be a viable candidate from the organisational sciences for elevation to the lofty status of a scientific law of nature, then the relationship between goal difficulty, specificity, commitment & task performance are serious contenders. (Mento, Steel & Karren, 1987, p. 74)

Individuals scoring highly on the commitment scale are usually avid users of goal setting techniques. Unfortunately, those people who would benefit from goal setting probably use them least. Those individuals reporting lower commitment would certainly benefit from employing some of the classic planning techniques but are either uninterested in them or rather intimidated by them. This potential “catch 22” is evident in much of the personal development work relating to mental toughness interventions. Few people needing help will actively seek it out, so we need to bring it to them.

Some descriptors and behaviours which may be associated with extreme positions on the commitment scale.

Lower scores

Higher scores

Intimidated by goals and measures—they induce paralysis

May lack a sense of purpose—they can think “win-lose”

Goals become something which appears overpowering

May resent the imposition of goals and targets

May respond emotionally when given tasks

Allow themselves to be easily distracted

Will avoid targets

Will skip meetings or classes More likely to be late for thing Find reasons to miss the target “I can't do … Maths”

Will default to a life experience which provides an excuse to blame someone else for failure— “I couldn't do this because my parents …”

Can feel unlucky—its not my day

Like goals and measures—these describe what success looks like

Goals are translated into something which is achievable

Will break things down into manageable chunks

Prepared to do what it takes—Will work hard (and long hours if necessary)

Maintain focus

Like the repeated opportunity to measure and prove themselves

Will prioritise effort and activities Will attend meetings/classes even

if the don't like the people/topic Set high standards for self and


Won't let others down

May deliver too quickly at times Can inconvenience others with

their focus on KPI's (Key Performance Indicator)

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