Overcoming the Fear of Making Mistakes at Work

by | Oct 16, 2018 | 0 comments

Do you have a fear of making mistakes at work? I was talking to a friend not long ago who happens to be a counselor. I was unloading to him about work issues – I forget the details – and he called me a perfectionist.

Have you ever been told that you are a perfectionist? Do you think you are a perfectionist? No?

Me either. But maybe we need a closer look. What are the implications of being a perfectionist?

When he called me a perfectionist, I laughed and told him I was anything but.

  • All my work was not good enough.
  • My work at the university was just OK.
  • My work with my clients was mediocre.
  • My home projects were a joke.

He laughed back and said that I had just described how any good perfectionist would feel. He asked me if I thought my perfectionism was hurting my job? I did not know what he meant.

Since that short chat with my friend, I have seen this perfectionism in a lot of the students and clients I coach. At times, it does hurt their job and does damage to their personal brand. Often, your demand to do better is making you do worse.

The Need to Not Make a Mistake

In a recent coaching call, Jane (not her real name) explained her fear of making mistakes at work. Her job required her to troubleshoot system problems when an outage occurred and put her customers out of service. She thought she should know her job well and therefore hated to ask questions. Her focus was to avoid all mistakes and show others that she knew her stuff. But it was damaging her. Instead – she often made many mistakes. She would do the wrong work for the wrong reason because she failed first to understand the real problem.

I have seen this scenario many times. Oddly, most have been women. Not sure if that means anything – but just an observation.

But if you find you feel the need to show how much of an expert you are (or just competent) and fear making a mistake – maybe I can open your eyes to some ideas.

1. Making Mistakes Means You are Growing and Learning

Having been in the classroom for many years, I have noticed that sometimes we get the right answers to problems, but we might not know why we got the right answer. We think we understand, but really for some reason, it is just working out. As the one teaching a class – it can be hard to tell who really gets it and who is just getting to the right answer. In fact, the ACT and SAT college entrance exams are written to discern if a student is going through the motions and getting the right answers or truly understands what is going on. 

But when a student makes a mistake and is shown what they did wrong, then they learn. That is one mistake they will likely never make again.

I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success. – Jack Welch

Those who are growing are often making a lot of mistakes. Those who are not growing will rarely make a mistake. So the only way to grow and learn is to allow yourself sometimes to make a mistake and learn from it.

2. Who are You Comparing Yourself To?

Are the other people you are comparing yourself to more experienced on the job? One client had 2 years of experience and was comparing herself to someone with 20 years of experience. She had to accept that she would never catch up to that person. Her fear of making mistakes at work was causing her to miss the obvious differences of experience.

3. Ask for Help from a Position of Power

Many have felt that by asking, they are showing weakness. I get it – I want to know it all too. But maybe instead of asking every time you encounter a problem (which can look like you are not learning), you should be more direct. Go and talk to the experienced person and ask them for help before you need it.

For instance, Jane was afraid of making a mistake as she provided support to a technical team in the field. She was a troubleshooter and was in the home office looking at all the system’s drawings and would be guiding the field crew on how to fix a trouble. She was afraid that she could not solve the problem fast enough – and therefore delay the restore time – or that she might make more things fail by directing the team to turn on or off the wrong systems. She was often frozen by indecision.

Her boss was the lead with 20 years of experience doing this work. I asked her, “Has he ever made a mistake? Does he fear doing the wrong thing?” Logic tells me that he has made many mistakes over time.

But, she sat silently at my question. She had never really considered how it impacted him.

Her assignment that day – talk to him about how he deals with the uncertainty and fear of making a mistake. Address the real issue. She has the task of talking to him and is excited about it. We will see how it goes.

But note, this is a different kind of question. This question is not “what do I do next,” which is all about facts. This question is about fear, indecision…. or emotions. She is going to be asking about how he feels about the issue.

Since it is emotional – it will help him identify more with her and perhaps remember how he felt with a little experience. I guess her learning curve; confidence is about to go way up as she develops a stronger ally in her boss.

4. Learn all You Can from Wherever You Can

In Jane’s situation, she had a limited amount of training because it is hard to train. She also could not get in the field with the techs often because she needed to be at the main office. So hard to learn more. But while I was talking to her, I searched Youtube for what she was doing and found tons of videos with people talking about their troubleshooting of similar systems. Were the videos good? No idea – but certainly something else she could learn.

I asked Jane if she had ever searched the web for such information? No – she had not. She was shocked at the sheer number of videos I found in a simple search. She said, “This is like a whole set of training classes on demand.” What a great time we live in.

Find people doing a job like yours well and ask questions. Who’s living your dream? Learn from them.

Your Assignment to Overcome the Fear of Making Mistakes at Work

Find someone in your organization who has a lot more experience than you. Ask them about their fear of making mistakes.

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Dale Callahan

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