Earlier this year, I was contacted by a supervisor at a large technology firm who had her sights set on becoming a unit manager. She was so eager to secure the position, which was opportunely vacant at the time, that she paid out of her pocket to retain me as her executive coach. Despite her grand aspirations, she was paralyzed by her fear of success. As the first member of her family to attend college, she had always been a high achiever and somewhat of an outlier in her family. Her brother ridiculed her, referring to her as "up, up, upwardly mobile." She was already overwrought with shame and guilt, and feared that continued success would only exasperate these feelings.
Fear of success handicaps countless individuals. The fact that “achievemephobia”, one's fear of success, is one of only 100 different phobias identified by the American Psychological Association underscores its ubiquity. In some cases, individuals fear change and deem it easier and safer to maintain the status quo than to pursue success, even if the change is positive. In other cases (especially when individuals are introverts), they fear the limelight and additional attention they’ll be afforded. In still other cases, they fear that success will result in increased pressure to repeat or build on success. James Sudakow, the founder of CH Consulting and author of "Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit," explains that our fear of success rivals (if not surpasses) our fear of failure in its debilitating effects: “Fear of failure may be the small hurdle…ironically enough. Fear of success, the somewhat counter-intuitive concept that we are scared of achieving what we want to achieve, may be more subtle, harder to recognize, and more real than you think.”
As a leader, it’s critical to recognize your fears of success and avoid giving them the reins to self-sabotage you.
1. Visualize success
We often think of success as an ethereal concept and pursuit. While we strive to achieve it, we often have an incomplete or distorted view of how we will achieve it or what it entails after fulfillment. This lack of clarity often results in fear. I have often said that the fear of success is a unique issue that arises when we are openly creating change and moving forward in our lives. Our culture is focused on fixing the past. It's as if we are driving through life staring in the rear-view mirror. This does not help us create or learn tools for change. So even when we see people achieve success, it is often portrayed in an easy-win or magical kind of way.
To come to terms with success, we must first understand it. Also, realize that success will change things around us, and even change us. Research by the University of Bucharest’s Elena Stanculescu found that one’s fear of success is positively associated with a search for meaning. As an executive coach, I’m able to assist my clients in concretizing success. By helping them with goal setting and action planning, I’m ready to help them define what success entails and map out a concrete path to (and beyond) fulfillment. My training as a psychologist helps my clients avoid self-sabotage. My experience also gives me the ability to arm my clients with a series of useful tools and tactics (including, for example, visualization, mindfulness, stoicism, and cognitive-behavioral practices) that allow them to develop a more robust cognitive understanding of success and come to terms with it rather than fear it.
2. Empower others during your climb
Often, guilt is a natural consequence of success. We feel guilty that we’ve reached a level of achievement that others have not. My client, for example, was overwhelmed with guilt that she had risen the ranks while her family remained of meager means. She didn’t feel worthy. As Ambrose Bierce, author of "The Devil’s Dictionary," once remarked, “Success is the one unpardonable sin against one’s fellows.”
Biology can explain why feelings of guilt so often accompany success. Research has revealed that when we feel guilt, the reward centers of our brain, including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens, are activated. One of the most effective means of overcoming guilt is to empower others to succeed throughout your climb to the top. Executive coach and author Kushla Chadwick advocates for the practice of “tithing,” which involves donating a percentage of one’s income (typically 10%) to a religious organization or charity. By contributing to the betterment of society, you're less likely to feel guilty and ashamed of the success you've been privy to. As an alternative to monetary donations, you can also tithe your time and energy. You can, for example, offer to train, mentor, inspire, or otherwise assist your colleagues in attaining their rendition of success.
3. Don’t compromise your values
Many individuals fear that success will cause them to lose or compromise their integrity and core values. It’s critical to recognize that success need not result in a loss of identity. As an executive coach, I’m able to assist my clients in defining their values and continuously monitoring their behaviors to avoid any trade-offs. By leveraging 360-degree reviews, personality assessments, and other tools, I'm able to help them gain self-awareness and avoid compromising their values as they advance and rise the ranks. Additionally, I’m able to assist them in recognizing that they deserve success and it is very much in alignment with their values, which often include autonomy, competency, learning, responsibility, and/or stability. Barrie Devenport, an executive coach, and self-improvement thought leader, explains that reclaiming authenticity is a surefire means of conquering one’s fear of success: “If you desire success and have the potential for it, then choosing to avoid it is a choice to be someone you are not. Recognize that you can't be happy and fulfilled by compromising your values, goals, or integrity."
As an executive, it’s critical to appreciate that your fears of success have real and dire consequences. A study published in the Asian Academy of Management Journal revealed that fear of success and burnout on the job are correlated. By changing your mindset and recognizing that success opens doors and acts as a moving and changing platform to build on, you'll be able to rise above your fears. As Marianne Williamson once remarked (although the quote is commonly falsely attributed to Nelson Mandela), “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us”. Moreover, yes, that supervisor did become the unit manager. She now heads up the whole district, and empowers those around her based on the lessons she learned in her journey.
Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. provides Executive Coaching and Human Resources solutions. Her mission is to make the executive experience exceptionally enjoyable and effective. She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them.
As an organization psychologist and former corporate CEO, Dr. Nadine understands the pressures and demands executives face. She offers her clients the high expertise that only comes with three decades of consulting success, and a dual Ph.D. in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology. Dr. Nadine is an in-demand speaker, teaches in doctoral programs, and coaches other consultants. She is the author of two books: ‘The Art of Executive Coaching: Secrets to Unlock Leadership Performance’, and of ‘Stress-less Leadership: How to Lead in Business and in Life’. amazon.com/author/nadinegreiner