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The F-Word Holding Women Back At Work & How To Overcome It

Originally published on Forbes.

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

The reality is very simple: Women who take risks are more successful. Given the volatility and uncertainty of the world of business today, with unprecedented changes and the threat of disruption at every corner, taking the leap into the unknown is a critical business skill.

But, in spite of this fact, women aren't doing it as much as men. According to KPMG's latest Women's Leadership Study, only 43% are willing to take the bigger risks associated with career advancement. What I've found with my own experience through the women I coach and work with is that the more junior women are in their careers, the more willing they are to take big risks. Interestingly, as they become more experienced and more self-confident, they become less open to risk-taking, and this was confirmed in KPMG's study, with only 37% of women with 15-plus years of experience willing to take big career-defining risks. Not exactly the results you'd expect.

According to the study, women are more likely to be less confident talking about their accomplishments, asking for a higher salary or volunteering to do a big presentation — all things which would increase their visibility and their career advancement prospects.

So, why are women seemingly more risk-averse than men?

Well, according to a 2019 study, risk-related gender differences are, like most gender differences, a product of socialization. This then manifests in what's become a consistent theme that women share with me as to why they hold themselves back, and it comes down a four-letter f-word: fear. Fear of the possible "fail."

Achieving success in today's business environment requires an action-first, fake-it-'til-you-make-it ethos, which isn't exactly something that most women resonate with. Perhaps this is why two-thirds of women have experienced imposter syndrome at work over the past 12 months (according to a study conducted by Access Commercial Finance). Perhaps women value authenticity too much to just "fake it."

But this fear of failure prevents some women from putting their hands up for new opportunities, being recognized for promotion, negotiating a pay raise or taking on new roles that could catapult them to success.

So how can women overcome this fear of the f-word and become less risk-averse?

Three Simple Mindset Shifts To Overcome Fear Of Failure

1. Every risk has the potential of failure, so get used to it. 

Failure is a part of life. By definition, there's no way to guarantee that a risk will work out. However, no great success was ever achieved without failure. Just think about the fact that it took Edison thousands of attempts to create a lightbulb. Or that Marilyn Monroe was told by a producer that she was "unattractive" and could not act.

Unfortunately, some women have a tendency to wear their failure like a weight and reinforce the self-belief that they are a failure through a self-defeatist mindset. If you fail, just bounce back. Move on. Be Marilyn. See it as a learning opportunity, because everyone who has succeeded has been there before.

2. Welcome it, and take the emotion out of it.

When you fear something, just like I fear spiders, you avoid it. But the fear is created in our heads by our thoughts. We fear what we don't know, and too often, we allow it to prevent us from taking actions that could help us succeed. This deep-seated fear of failure that some women have stems in part from an innate desire for validation and approval that has been socially conditioned into women from a young age. It's become ingrained into our neurology, and the strong emotional pain that comes with fear of judgment is embedded into our brain and our body. So we need to unlearn this fear of failure, and one way to start is through self-compassion and acknowledging that we aren't perfect. By opening our arms to the possibility that things may not work out, and that it's not our fault if it doesn't, we can start to address the subconscious fear of failure by separating our sense of self-worth from the outcome.

3. Take enlightened risks.

When it comes to risk-taking, we know that women need to do it more. But that doesn't mean taking reckless risks "just because" you want to strengthen your risk-taking muscle and conquer your fear of failure. I'd applaud your conviction, but I wouldn't be advising it. Instead, I advise my clients to take "enlightened risks": risks that they've thought through, that are inspired by a larger vision that they have for themselves or could take them closer to where they want to go. I'll be first to admit that not all of the risks I've taken worked out, but I've learned something from every one of them. As Ellen DeGeneres has said, "It's failure that gives you the proper perspective on success."

When it comes to risk-taking, women need to recognize that the fear often starts in our heads with what we're telling ourselves about our abilities or about the potential outcome. But the thing is, women are a lot more equipped than that little voice in our heads sometimes tell us. We need to back ourselves first, see failure as an opportunity for growth and practice a little self-compassion along the way.


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