The Fear of Looking Foolish

When it comes to getting things done, never underestimate the power of what I call ‘the fear of looking foolish‘.

Clowning ball
Image by Wendy Candela

Perfectly intelligent, reasonable people get caught up in wanting to present an image of success at all times to impress their bosses, colleagues and peers. They lie because they haven’t had time to do the reading required, so blag their way through meetings rather than simply own up, having a more intelligent conversation as a result. In fact, in our minds, far more important than a productive project is maintaining your credibility and avoiding looking foolish!

No one wants to be seen to take their eye off the ball for even a moment but as a society we stifle so much creativity and innovation by our unhelpful aversion to embracing any form of failure.

We don’t learn from our failures often enough for this very reason.

Things Go Wrong

Life happens, things go badly and not everything we touch turns to gold. Humans make mistakes, but no one wants to look like a human being at work. We want to look like the most promote-able, successful, and unnervingly perfect projection of our real selves. It’s a system that feeds itself: because we’re so unwilling to change the rules as a culture, individuals are forced to play by these rules or else lose the wider game. Even if we know that everyone occasionally screws up.

We’re often caught because we’re playing two different games:

1. we know what we’d really love to do, we know what the project most needs

2. we know we need to keep up our front and avoid looking foolish

The easy and natural thing at this point is to be as vague as possible about where a project is up to, retreat to the trenches and avoid the people who might hold us accountable or spring our little secret.

Sound familiar?


Clowning ball

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