I once had a boss who, during a performance review, told me one of the things the company valued most was perfection. ‘No pressure, there’, I thought to myself–I can’t imagine anything more boring. I had previously worked for people who accepted mistakes and considered them necessary to achieving success.

When starting out in my career it made all the difference having an employer that believed in mistakes; especially considering there were times the mistakes I made could have forced me into earlier retirement (I once sent a client report to the wrong client–that’s a mistake you only make once, believe me – or better, not at all).

My point is, they’re important–we all learn from our mistakes, right? It turns out that most people do not adhere to the saying as literally as I do. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by Accountemps, the number one fear among workers is making a mistake.

Employees aren’t afraid of being forced to dress up for a Halloween office party (that would be one of my fears). Public speaking (probably worse for me than dressing up) is up there, but it still doesn’t beat the idea of screwing up. Not being perfect is what apparently sends people over the edge.

In the survey workers were asked: Which one of the following is your greatest workplace fear?

  • Making errors on the job
  • Dealing with difficult customers or clients
  • Speaking in front of a group of people
  • Conflicts with coworkers
  • Conflicts with your manager
  • Other/don’t know/no answer


29% of respondents said that making an error on the job was their greatest fear, compared to 17% who’s biggest fear was dealing with a difficult client or customer, and 16 % who noted speaking in front of a group of people.

When asked about the responses, Sandra Lavoy, Regional Vice President of Accountemps, said “employees are truly afraid of failure, and are worried that if they make a mistake it could hold them back in their career.” She noted that people take a great deal of pride and ownership in their work, and put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform. Workers may view mistakes as errors that jeopardize all their hard work and achievements.

But, if workers are afraid to make mistakes what does that do to creativity? Do people begin to feel stagnant in their roles? “Absolutely, that is a concern,” says Lavoy. “There are times when employees take risks that turn out to be impressive. If they’re too afraid of taking risks managers will miss those potential gains.”

I agree–if employees feel like one mistake will put their careers are at stake, there’s no incentive to be creative–but a lot of incentive to maintain the standard quo. That’s no fun.

Lavoy attributes employees’ imperfection fears in part to companies that are more concerned about operations than relationship management. “Managers and employees are generally working in fairly lean environments. Scale backs have meant that everyone’s plates are pretty full and the bottom line is what matters most,” she says, “managing employee relations can get overlooked.”

This is an easy fix on the part of managers. “It’s all about appropriately framing questions and requests. People want to know they’ve done a good job,” says Lavoy. It’s true, if you know your manager thinks highly of your performance it’s much easier to suggest new ideas or concepts.

However, relieving a fear of failure isn’t only up to managers. Accountemps also suggests ways workers can manage their own perfection anxieties:

Here are some of their tips:

  1. Prioritize your responsibilities, and delegate when possible.
  2. Ask for direction when facing a challenging project or new responsibilities.
  3. Don’t be afraid to tap a mentor for advice on a challenge.

What’s your greatest workplace fear? Is screwing up one of them?