“Fear of Failure” is a theme that has come up frequently in early episodes of Ignite Alabama and in my general conversations about what holds people back from becoming an entrepreneur or taking action to go for a goal or dream.
Dr. Gabriella Cacciotti's research centers on the “fear of failure” concept as it relates to entrepreneurship. We spoke recently via Skype about her doctoral research on the concept of fear of failure and the excellent literature review paper she published in 2014 with Professor James Hayton through the Enterprise Research Centre in England.
This is the first “theory” focused episode of Ignite Alabama and Dr. Cacciotti provides an excellent summation of her research which reveals inconsistencies in the conceptualization of “fear of failure” and varied approaches to classifying and measuring this somewhat ephemeral concept.
We go a little deep but if you are interested why it can be challenging to “get your head around” fear of failure I think you will enjoy this episode.
You can find out more about Dr. Cacciotti's research and download the paper we reference in this conversation here on the Enterprise Research Centre website.
As Dr. Cacciotti mentioned in our interview, she'll soon be moving to Aalto University in Helsinki to continue her research.
Below the SoundCloud embedded file you'll find some notes I made after reviewing the finished interview. These notes are my attempts to paraphrase and summarize Dr. Cacciotti’s commentary and insights during the interview so that I could give you something in this blog post that's more in the nature of journalistic reporting, rather than a transcript.
All ideas, findings and scholarly contributions reflected in my summary below should be credited to Dr. Cacciotti. Any mistakes in summation or paraphrase are my own and unintentional.
Dr. Cacciotti classified the existing research on fear of failure in entrepreneurship into two groups based on the conceptual definition of fear of failure used in a particular study.
Research Articles in Group 1
In Dr. Cacciotti’s classification system, studies in the group 1 body of research treated the concept of fear of failure as a “stable personality trait“ and most of the studies focused on the tendency of individuals to experience fear of failure, not the actual experience of failure.
In effect, fear of failure in this conceptualization is a “characteristic that distinguishes one person from another.”
Some of the studies in Group 1 focus on the fear of failure as the level of perceived risk in starting a business and treat risk aversion and fear of failure as equivalent concepts.
Common Findings of Group 1 Research
The common finding or conclusion across the studies in group 1 body of research is that the fear of failure has a negative influence on the decision to start a business.
In other words, these studies see the fear of failure as something “antecedent” to the decision to start a business.
Dr. Cacciotti says the findings in this first group of studies are informative, but also limited by some inconsistencies in the conceptualization and other research findings that show that the feeling aspects of fear of failure don’t always limit an individual’s decision to start a business or pursue entrepreneurial activities.
Dr. Cacciotti says that research in psychology shows there’s a nonlinear relationship between fear of failure and attitude toward risk, yet entrepreneurship research tends to treat fear of failure and risk aversion as linear.
Studies from psychology have shown that in some people with a high level of fear of failure will choose extremely difficult tasks so that if they fail they can blame the outcome on the difficulty; others will choose a very easy task so that the desired outcome can be easily attained. At the same time, research in psychology shows that some individuals with high levels of fear of failure will choose to perform “tasks of moderate difficulty.”
In addition to the challenges raised by conceptual inconsistencies, Dr. Cacciotti identified a methodological challenge because most of the studies “rely on the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor data.” She explains why this is a problem in the interview around the 10 minute mark (and in her paper, as well).
Basically, the question posed in the GEM survey is one that ties attitude about fear with anticipated behavioral outcome in a unidirectional sense.
This unidirectional relationship conflicts with the research from psychology which has shown that fear of failure is a multidimensional variable (see the work by Conroy & Elliott, here in PDF form) with dualistic behavioral implications. Research from psychology has found that the fear of failure motivates some people to work harder, while others are inhibited by the fear of failure.
The end result is that use of this particular item from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor is inappropriate for the fear of failure studies in entrepreneurship because it has built-in assumptions about fear of failure which are not supported by the research in psychology on fear of failure.
Group 2 Studies
In this group of studies on fear of failure in entrepreneurship, researchers consider fear of failure as a “temporary emotional state” rather than a stable personality trait. The temporary emotional state “is triggered by appraisal of external cues from the environment” and is “associated with psychological and behavioral responses.”
Group 2 studies “look at the real experience of fear of failure” rather than the dispositional tendency, but the end result from this body of studies is largely that fear of failure is negative and something to be avoided. In other words, this research concludes that fear of failure has a negative effect on the decision to start a business.
In spite of the overall consistency in conclusions across the studies in both groups of research, Dr. Cacciotti and her colleagues also found conceptual and methodological limitations in Group 2 studies.
Limitations of Group 2 Studies
One limitation is that these Group 2 studies lump fear with other negative emotions like anger and sadness. Some of the research is based on data derived using scales that simply measure general negative emotions, rather than specific negative emotions like fear or sadness.
This lumping together of negative emotions is in contrast to the research in psychological literature which finds differences between the various negative emotions and demonstrates that “each negative emotion has a distinct impact on behavior.”
It is problematic when scholars studying fear of failure in entrepreneurship use these general measures of negative emotion because they aren’t actually studying fear of failure, they are studying the impact of general negative emotion on entrepreneurship.
Another issue in some of these studies is the failure to differentiate between the general concept of fear and the specific fear of failure. We can’t adequately study the fear of failure in entrepreneurship if we don’t determine whether the object of someone’s fear is due to something unrelated to business risks or if the fear is specific to possible business outcomes, opportunities, and so on.
In short, the research from both groups clearly demonstrates that fear of failure has a negative impact on entrepreneurship BUT—and this is what’s important—the conceptual and methodological limitations of the existing research are such that the results are too muddled (my word) to be meaningful.
New Approaches in Studying Fear of Failure in Entrepreneurship
With the recognition of these limitations in the existing research, Dr. Cacciotti and her colleagues are seeking to find a better way to define the concept of fear of failure in entrepreneurship.
Until the concept is properly and consistently defined and measured, future research on fear of failure in entrepreneurship will be less-than-helpful (at best) and potentially damaging to campaigns and programs ostensibly designed to promote and encourage entrepreneurial behavior. This is basically my admonition, but Dr. Cacciotti seemed to concur with my assessment during our conversation.
In short, Dr. Cacciotti agrees that as a result of the inconsistencies and limitations, it would be improper at this time to make generalizations about fear of failure in entrepreneurship from the existing literature.
A subsequent study by Dr. Cacciotti and her colleagues sought to develop a better conceptualization of fear of failure by focusing on the actual experience of fear of failure by entrepreneurs.
Dr. Cacciotti begins to explain this study around the 19 minute mark in the interview.
They first began by looking to the research from psychology, focusing on the work by Dr. Conroy who defined fear of failure as a multidimensional construct built on 5 dimensions that distinct trigger cognitive responses. Here's a study by Conroy & Elliott that describes fear of failure in the context of sports.
For example, environmental components can impact the tendency to experience fear of failure, as well as relationship variables such as a desire to avoid disappointing significant others.
To move forward in their research, Dr. Cacciotti’s team had to first decide if they could (or would) take the existing models in psychology and apply them directly in fear of failure in entrepreneurship.
The second decision they had to make was whether “to talk about fear of failure as a tendency or observe the real experience of fear of failure.” Fear of failure is both a tendency and an experience, but before designing the study, Dr. Cacciotti and her colleagues had to decide which approach to take as they set out to measure the relationship between fear of failure and a particular behavior.
Sports & Education Contexts Are Different From Business Contexts
One challenge is that most of the research in psychology on fear of failure has grown out of education and sports, which is contextually different than the business environment.
I posed an example of a desire to make it to the Olympics as a runner and used that to differentiate the plethora of environmental variables that also play into outcomes in business, which are much less relevant in success at a personal endeavor like achievement in individual sporting activities. Obviously, there are environmental variables at play in individual sporting success that are beyond the control of the athlete but not to the degree that those impact business outcomes.
Dr. Cacciotti pointed out that uncertainty in the business environment is very high.
What constitutes a failure in education or sports is fairly obvious in terms of what can be defined objectively, such as the failure to achieve a specific an outcome. If the goal is to win a tournament or competition or receive a certain grade on an exam, in an objective sense the failure to achieve that goal could be defined as a failure, even if the experience leads to better performance in the future.
In contrast, failure in entrepreneurship is “very subjective” and “idiosyncratic.” Failure can be both global and catastrophic in business or failure of tiny specific steps.
I used the examples of financial market collapse as a source of potential failure, industry upheavals and something on a smaller scale, like failure to pursue the right customers or the inability get a key infusion of capital when the time is right to expand or even the choice to go after an expansion vs. staying small and retaining control.
Risk Perception & Cultural Norms
Starting around the 28-minute mark We had a short discussion about risk perception, defining what is a risk and how culture and institutions within a particular culture help to shape perceptions of risk and definitions of failure before moving back into Dr. Cacciotti’s research.
Around [32:00], Dr. Cacciotti gives the example of how failure in business is perceived in Italy and how “the sense of shame that comes from” business failure is just below the “feeling that comes from loneliness and abandonment.”
Dr. Cacciotti's Recent Findings
Around [35:30] we returned to the findings of Dr. Cacciotti’s second study, which focused on the experience of fear of failure based on interviews with over 60 entrepreneurs in the UK and Canada.
None of these entrepreneurs specifically named fear of failure as the reason they didn’t start something. These individuals lumped fear of failure in when other reasons, such as lack of capital.
Furthermore, fear of failure is experienced by active entrepreneurs at various points in the business experience, not just in the decision to start the business. In some cases, fear of failure was motivational for those individuals, in other situations it was inhibitory, thus confirming the dualistic impact on behavior.
Dr. Cacciotti said the research also confirmed the multidimensional aspect of fear of failure, but the dimensions weren’t exactly the same as the ones recognized by the psychology research.
Around 38 minutes, Dr. Cacciotti begins to explain the dimensions in fear of failure they identified as specific to entrepreneurship. This research has been presented at academic conferences and is now under review for publication in academic journals.
Although Dr. Cacciotti specifically names and briefly explains the 7 dimensions found in their research, I'm going to hold off on listing those here until I confirm that it's OK to do so. If you're curious, you can listen to the interview for now, again starting around the [38:00] minute mark.
If you found this summation helpful, I'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.