Fear of failure: it's not necessarily a bad thing
October 29, 2010
By Lori Newman
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Henry Ford once said "Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently."
The fear of failure was a topic addressed during a Leadership Call Oct. 21 at the Army Medical Department Center & School.
Dr. Valerie Rice, a researcher at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Human Research and Engineering Directorate, presented some interesting results from a study conducted with 200 Health Care Specialist (68W) students from the 232nd Medical Battalion.
"The AMEDDC&S is the largest medical training facility in the world," Rice said. "One of the things that is going to be an issue is attrition."
When the study was conducted, the failure rate (attrition) for first-time students going through the 68W program was 17 to 20 percent and rose to 50 percent for those attempting the program a second time.
In a focus group held with commanders and instructors, one issue was the student's ability to deal with a fear of failure.
"What happens when there is a fear of failure is an individual finds themselves in a situation where failure could occur," she explained. "If they have a true fear of failure, they begin to experience state anxiety."
State anxiety is a temporary emotional condition characterized by apprehension, tension, and fear about a particular situation or activity, which interferes with a person's ability to study, take a test or do their job.
In general, people are motivated to either move toward success or avoid failure. Individuals who go toward success are unstoppable, they don't think about fear, Rice explained. People who have a fear of failure stop and think about all of the possible negative consequences, focusing on what could possibly go wrong.
The adverse consequences of fear of failure are shame and embarrassment; devaluing one's own self-esteem; having an uncertain future; and people who are important to you begin to lose interest.
"The literature says fear of failure is a trait that develops during early childhood," Rice said. "The problem with that definition is if it's a trait, not a state, that means it's enduring, it's long-term.
"If fear of failure is prevalent among your students and you cannot change that trait during training at Fort Sam Houston, all you can do is change the way you reach them and teach them," she said.
To deal with this, people come up with coping techniques to protect themselves from the consequences of failure. They may arrange circumstances to have a convenient excuse for failure that does not imply lack of ability on their own part.
Rice explained that the "Need Achievement Theory" has been looked at as more than just going toward success and avoiding failure. It grouped the traits together, so if someone has a high fear of failure and a high orientation for success, they are an "overstriver." If an person has a low fear of failure and focused on achieving success, they are an "optimist."
There are also "failure avoiders," those who are low at approaching success but high in fear of failure and there are "failure accepters," people who accept the fact that they are going to fail and are low in both approaching success and avoiding failure.
A questionnaire was given to the 200 students, which included general demographics such as age, gender, marital status and ethnicity. The study included a performance failure appraisal inventory test and questions about motivation and self-confidence. Most of the participants were male Caucasians between the ages of 17 and 18, according to Rice.
The students were asked to complete the questionnaire during the first two weeks of the course. Upon completion, the Department of Combat Medic Training provided ARL statistics on grade point average, pass/fail status, Army Physical Fitness Test scores and the number of days each student were on limited duty status due to musculoskeletal injures.
The results showed there was no difference in the pass/fail rate, APFT, musculoskeletal injuries or motivation and self-confidence. However, there was a difference in GPAs, and as the students' fear of failure increased, their grade increased.
"That's the exact opposite of everything we found in the literature," Rice said. In looking at the four categories, she said "The optimists were the ones we should have found the most successful, but that's not what we found."
There were more overstrivers than in any other category and they performed better academically. When considering motivation as the indicator of approaching success, 90 percent of the overstrivers passed versus 84 percent of the optimists. There was only a slight difference between the optimists and the failure accepters, who had pass rates of about 82 percent.
When looking at self-confidence as the indicator of approaching success, the overstrivers pass rate was about 90 percent, while optimists were at 87 percent, failure avoiders at 84 percent, and failure accepters at 78 percent.
To better understand the study results, ARL did another study to look at "organization commitment" that compared Soldiers to the general population.
"The perceived adverse consequences of failing in the 68W program are worse and different than the perceptions of adverse consequences in other situations among the general population," Rice said. "To design a successful [program of instruction] you have to understand who the students are, what motivates them and how to reach and teach them."
Three of the four groupings mentioned are primarily motivated by fear of failure, rather than approaching success. "With fear of failure you have to find ways to motivate [students] that does not destroy their own sense of self."
The bottom line is that the optimists will most likely do well no matter what, but the other three groups are not motivated by pep talks or telling them everything that might go wrong.
Teaching the students how to use defensive pessimism is one way to help them, Rice said.
"Teach them how to identify what could go wrong, how to come up with a plan to deal with the potential negative outcomes, and how to activate the plan."
Failure accepters and failure avoiders lack self-confidence. They are not motivated by success or achievement. They are motivated by avoiding global failure as a person, while appearing confident and trying to impress others.
"Somehow you have to get to them on their level, because you are not going to make them into a new person while they are here," she said. "You can help them to understand the difference between failure on a given task and failure as a person.
"Teach them how to use defensive pessimism," Rice added. "Don't compare them with other people, compare them with themselves."
Rice suggested giving students direct feedback on what they do and don't do well, while being specific and helping them with deadline management.
"Don't give global compliments, likes 'you did well on that blood draw.' Instead, say something like 'you held the skin taut and kept the bevel up.' Help them understand that failure is not a bad thing."