The Fear of Failure
Some years ago I was sitting with some American friends of Eastern European origin, looking back to our childhood. Somebody remarked that no matter how well he did in their exam, their Eastern European parents always said ‘why didn’t you do better?’ The rest of the group shrieked with laughter. They all said, ‘my parents said that to me.’ They all shared the same experience. Another added that they envied their friends who had home- grown American parents because, no matter how low the exam mark, the parent greeted them with a ‘not bad at all’ or even ‘pretty good.’ Another said that their friend’s pushy American parents would still acknowledge what they had done with a ‘ok, that’s great, what can we do to get an even better mark, the next time?’
As a parent, I found myself instinctively moving towards the ‘why didn’t you do better’ instinct, though my Western European schooling taught me that positive encouragement was the better path. ‘I disagree’, said my Belarusian friend. ‘If we say to the child, “Congratulations, you did well’, there is a danger that the child will rest on their laurels, having won parental approval, and cease to work harder…’
Of course, it is probably true that some people may thrive on never being praised by their parents or teachers and, as a result constantly strive harder in order to receive the elusive ‘well done’ (which may never come): others may just give up trying completely. Even more extreme, some children, being constantly told that they are ‘not quite good enough’ may be tempted to excel in being ‘no good’, becoming more disruptive or more dangerous than their peers. The logic behind this is that , in their own mind ‘behaving worse than everybody else’ is also an achievement of sorts. The accolade ‘ you are the worst person I have ever met’ may be some sort of superlative to be proud of in the absence of any positive recognition.
On the other hand, a modicum of encouragement seems to work. We may scoff at modern Western schooling where homework is returned to the school student with smiley face badges, gold stars and encouraging remarks in the margin rather than red ink and exclamation marks. We may be exasperated with the adage that ‘nobody is a failure’ and ‘we give praise for effort, as well as results.’ However, having experienced both types of systems, I can’t help feeling that this system of encouragement is more successful in nurturing talent, and certainly more pleasant and comfortable.
What’s wrong with pointing out the mistakes?
Moreover, it seems that the ‘should have done better’ approach also tends to focus on what was done wrong or mistakes that were made rather than what was done well. If the mistakes are accompanied by punishment, censure or public humiliation, then the instinct is to focus on avoiding making mistakes rather than trying anything new. There are at least two consequences of this.
Firstly, ‘making mistakes’ becomes so embedded as a negative (rather than as a ‘learning experience’) that when mistakes are made, efforts are made to either hide it or deflect it onto somebody else – the objective of dodging criticism becomes more important than accepting mistakes and dealing with the consequences. If it is a broken window caused by a football or a stain on the carpet, then efforts to find the culprit and punish with the resultant scramble to avoid blame, the fall-out is minimal. If the mistake is a malfunction at a nuclear plant caused by negligence, then the results of focusing on the ‘who’ rather than the ‘what’ can be catastrophic.
Secondly, a person, a company or a society becomes risk averse and therefore the creative spark is discouraged. Indeed, a high degree of self-censorship becomes instinctive. This is especially so when the teacher, boss or political leader takes a certain pride in pointing out what was done wrong, and punishing them in public, thus humiliating them and sending out the message that it better not to try, lest you fail.
When cultures collide
I recall that in the 1990’s when western managers working in Eastern Europe met what they called a ‘wall of inertia’ from local managers. Except that it wasn’t inertia, it was the unwillingness to try anything new or different for fear of getting it wrong. As the British manager said, ‘I tried to communicate that making mistakes is ok.’ He added ‘as long as they are not major mistakes and as long as the person learns from them in order to know not to make the same mistake again’. As he put it, ‘if a mistake has been made, we look to see what we can do differently the next time, rather than punishing the person.’ That went against what the Eastern European managers mindset, learnt at home, school and in business.
By the way, I don’t want to give the impression that ‘a blame culture’ never happens in the West. Far from it. There are managers and companies’ cultures where ‘punishing the person’ rather than fixing the problem is standard practice. The Pavlovian instinct to punish is even evident at government level.
Achieving a balance
However, pointing out mistakes in itself is not in itself a bad thing. If we turn it to a positive by asking what went wrong, what did we learn, how do we avoid it in the future the consequences can be constant improvement. Conversely, a deficit in positive encouragement and the instinct to punish transgressors can ultimately be destructive. It leaves a society feeling fearful of failure without the concomitant advantage of pushing them to do better, not because they want to but because the fear the negative consequences of not doing so.
There are positive consequences to both. An environment where schools accept mistakes and look at how to avoid them in the future, where parents tell children what they should do rather than what they shouldn’t and where the boss praises and encourages rather than find fault and admonishment can all lead to a more confident and forward looking society.