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The Fear of Messing Up: Impacts on Women in Leadership & 6 Ways You Can Increase Your Risk Tolerance

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

When feeling is for thinking and thinking is for doing, regret is for making us better. - Daniel H. Pink, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward

Jolene Hermanson - The Coach for Women in STEM

Women, in general, take less-risky career paths. That was one of the problems identified in the research that prevent women rising to higher levels of leadership in STEM fields (National Academies Press, 2020).

Is it genetic? Environmental? And how do we change it? (Do we want to change it?)

Female rats take as many risks as males, leading many to believe this is a societal and cultural phenomenon.

Through socialization many of us (particularly women) were taught:

  • Do well. Avoid not doing well.

  • Boys get hurt. Girls don't. Girls, avoid getting hurt because you can't handle it.

  • Smarter people than you have already done things, and we’ll show you how to do them. We already know the answers. You just need to memorize them and give them back to us.

  • If you just put your head down and work, you will memorize and/or get the answers, and then we’ll be proud of you.

Through this filter, we learned:

  • Your grades and ability to succeed reflect your worth and acceptance.

  • There are answers. There’s the “right” way and the “wrong” way. If you pick the wrong way, the sky might fall on you. That'll hurt. You won't be able to handle it.

  • There is an omnipresent authority on things that is smarter and more competent than you.

  • Don’t try something without knowing you’ll succeed at it. You could get hurt.

  • Don’t make hasty decisions (or better yet, avoid making them all together), because what if you get it wrong? That sky… remember?

  • Please others by doing well.

  • Perfect it because anything less than perfect is a reflection of your worth.

  • You’re either born with a skill and talent, or you’re not.

  • You can work your way out of any problem by just putting in more hours. Unless you can’t put in the hours. Then you’re screwed.

These learned belief systems mean that we:

  • Tie our self-worth and self-concept to our ability to succeed. Failure or “messing up” is unacceptable because we make it mean something about us personally. The stakes are very, very high for us. So we avoid failure and risk. We also avoid seeking out feedback, because what if they say something negative about our skills or performance? That'll hurt, and we can't handle it.

  • Have a fixed mindset with very black and white thinking. There is little room for grey. Less room for creativity, open-ended questions, ambiguity. Less room for curiosity, because to be curious means we need to admit we don’t know something. So, we avoid problems that don’t already have known solutions for or templates on how to solve for them.

  • Suffer from people-pleasing, perfectionism and/or procrastination to decide. This causes us to take on more projects, unreasonable deadlines, worry constantly, and take longer to execute. Our stress levels increase. We believe we’re not capable of taking on a more senior role, because we can’t even handle the role that we’re in.

  • Don't believe we can handle it if we fail.

  • Don’t evaluate our struggles objectively to decide on what skills or systems we could improve. If our inability to do something is fixed, why would we try to change it?

The result of these beliefs and actions is:

  • An immense pressure that feels bad. Burn out, survival mode. The human body can only sustain burn out and be in survival mode for so long before things start to break down.

  • A fear of feeling regret, isolation, shame, or embarrassment that comes with messing up.

  • A low sense of self-efficacy, or confidence, in our abilities.

Survival mode, fear, and low confidence does not a good leader make.

Now, is the most important question How do we change this? or How do we NOT mess up?

While I'm 100% open to examples of where it's possible for someone to have a career of growth where mistakes don't happen, I currently know of none. I also don't know of a single person in a leadership position who has not had a mistake or two (a day) along the way. They learn how to minimize the mistakes through making them. But as long as they continue to push the boundaries into the unknown, mistakes are inevitable.

So, if NOT messing up is not possible in a career of growth and leadership, and yet we have the beliefs, feelings and actions above, we will continually avoid leadership and look for the safer and more sure career paths. We will continually come up against our own glass ceiling.

The next question becomes: How do we change this?

How do we feel better, have more confidence, develop our risk tolerance, and step into more leadership roles (should we choose)?

The answer: If we want to feel better about failing, we need to change our belief about what failure and messing up means.

That’s the good news, and the bad news.

The bad news is that there’s no one to blame, complain about, or point the finger at. You are creating your thoughts and your feelings, for better or for worse. You take action from those feelings, and those actions (or inactions) produce a result. You’re 100% responsible for your results.

The good news is that you are 100% in control of what you think and believe (but not what others think or believe). Which means you control how you feel. And if you feel differently about a situation, you’re going to take very different actions and get different results. So you have the power to change your situation at any moment in time, regardless of the circumstances life throws at you.

The other answer: We don't have to feel better.

Feeling bad (regret, uncertain, unsure, scared, overwhelmed, anxious, embarrassed, exposed, ashamed) is a PART OF BEING HUMAN. We don't want to stay there and dwell in those emotions, but we also don't want to be afraid of them. If we're willing to feel them, process them, and take action in spite of them, then we can do anything in life because the worse that will happen is that we feel a feeling (which is nothing more than a vibration or chemical impulse in our body).

Maybe the most important question becomes: Do we want to change this?

Do we want to take bigger risks, even if it means messing up? Feeling horrible?

If we want a result, or to change the status quo, the only way to figure out how to do that is by doing it. Success alone is not what moves us forward. Attempts are what move us forward. And when we attempt a lot of things, here’s what can happen:

  • Some of those things fail

  • Not everybody likes us

  • We might get negative feedback about our work or skill level

  • We might not be able to work our way out of something by sheer effort alone

  • We might feel bad

But… so what?

What are we making those things mean?

If we tie those things to our self-worth, or believe we can't handle it, then yes, the consequences of trying a bunch of stuff is devastating.

If we can separate out our thoughts and feelings from our (very neutral) results, and recognize our thoughts as sentences that are created from bias and cultural beliefs, and our feelings as harmless vibrations in our bodies, then it’s not a problem.

It is possible to have a lightness towards our mess ups.

It is possible to not feel the need to please everyone all the time.

This doesn't mean we don't take steps to minimize messing up wherever possible, and act like a team player. But can you imagine how much more we’d be willing and able to create with our lives if we were willing to accumulate failures and develop a tolerance for them.

Here are six things you can start practicing today to increase your risk tolerance:

  1. Get comfortable with negative emotion. Emotions are just messengers that there's stuff going on in your brain, thoughts that you're having about your situation. Use the emotions to figure out what thoughts you're having, and figure out if those thoughts are based on facts, or learned beliefs that aren't true and aren't helpful.

  2. Change what it means when you mess up, or don’t get awarded the job, or get criticized for your work. Thoughts and feelings about your “failure” are based on perspective and bias and cultural upbringing. They are not facts. And you can choose them. Your skill at work is completely independent from who you are, your value or self-worth. Negative thoughts and feelings about yourself based on a result you created (which is neutral until you make it mean something) is not helpful in solving the problem, creating different results or growing your capacity for more.

  3. Evaluate and learn from the data. Move forward. What went well? Something always went well. Our brain is biased for negativity. Actively practice and train your brain to look for the things that went well. What didn’t go well? What will you do differently? This is where you solve for the things that didn’t go well.

  4. Shift your timeline. If you say you can’t do something, what if you just haven’t been doing it long enough?

  5. Seek feedback from peers and senior staff so you can continuously improve, and see the problem and possible solutions from different perspectives. This might bring up some resistance or negative emotions. See #1.

  6. Find a mentor who can continually remind you of what you WANT; not what you’re afraid will happen. We need to train our brain to imagine the possibilities, instead of its default of only looking at past evidence for probabilities.

What would change for you if you had a higher tolerance to failure? How would it affect your life, relationships and deeper health?

If you want to take this work deeper, let's do it together. We can jump on a call and see if we'd be a good fit to work together to help you increase your risk tolerance and feel more confident.

Your mind matters. Your attempts matter. Let's push the boundaries and see what's possible.


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Policy and Global Affairs; The Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences; Whitacre PT, Najib D, editors. The Inclusion of Women in STEM in Kuwait and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2020 Sep 8. Available from: doi: 10.17226/25820

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