Conquering The Enemies of Innovation: Silence and Fear

What's the biggest impediment to innovation within an organization? Fear.

As early as 2004, research from Elizabeth Wolf Morrison and Frances J. Milliken for the Academy of Management Review and Stern Business pegged fear — and the resulting silence when employees operate within a culture of fear — as the biggest roadblock to innovation.

A recent survey by the Robert Half Group confirms that in 2012, the problem remains. What makes employees afraid?

In their survey, employees cite the following issues:

1. Fear of making a mistake tops the list (cited by 30%)
2. Fear of getting fired. In fact, not only the fear of getting fired outright, but the fear of appearing less dedicated or vital if they actually take earned vacation days is a big issue in a slow economy. The data shows employees left an average of 11 vacation days untaken in 2011.
3. Fear of dealing with difficult customers or clients
4. Fear of conflict with a manager
5. Fear of speaking in front of a group
6. Fear of disagreements with co-workers

Only 3% of employees consider themselves "fearless." We shouldn't be surprised that their innovation is gone.

What can we do to turn this deadly equation around? Open communication is critical to ending organizational fear. As Morrison and Milliken note, in a fearful environment, front-line employees are unwilling to share because they are afraid somebody will "kill the messenger." Genuine communication happens only behind closed door or in whispers, and outward communication becomes shallow or disappears.

Without a healthy feedback loop, the organization loses the focus required for problem solving efforts and innovative new developments and productivity gains.

How can we help employees to conquer their fears, and to bring their innovation forward? We suggest the following three steps:

1. We must learn to truly trust our employees. We must trust their inherent powers and strengths. We must trust them to find and deliver their finest nature, which is only possible if leaders regard and treat their employees as fully creative and capable people. We must trust them to care about each other, and about their customers. In Overcoming Worry and Fear, psychologist and author Paul A. Hauck points out that genuine trust is beyond empowerment. When leadership thinks in terms of "giving power," to employees, they are giving employees something they (and employees) inherently know that they also have the power to take back. A leader who genuinely trusts their people believes and communicates that employees already have all of the power they need within them, and communicates that he or she trusts them to use their power honorably and well.

2. We must rely on principles, not policies, to govern our decisions and acts. Instead of managing employees through policies and rules, consider the possibility of agreeing on guiding principles instead. For us, the principles are our 7 Non Negotiables: Respect, Belief, Trust, Loyalty, Courage, Gratitude and Commitment. By adhering to these foundational traits, employees can govern their own decisions without manager oversight or performance appraisals. More importantly, they are no longer fearful about the possibility they will make a mistake.

3. Employees must experiment before they create. A fearful employee can never experiment. In an environment of trust, however, individuals and teams thrive on the opportunity to create and try new approaches. They understand the opportunities that can only come from mistakes. Interestingly, Amazon's Jeff Bezos--Fortune Magazine's 2012 Businessman of the Year--has noted that organizations weaken themselves most through sins of omission, primarily their failure to experiment. Why do they not experiment? Yet again, the fear of making mistakes. Experiments--and failures--are vital (and along with obsessive dedication to customer support are the single biggest cause, he says, of Amazon's world-changing success.)

In summary, employees who feel supported and appreciated will feel sufficiently secure to devote their full energy, creativity and passion to the company and its goals. They will naturally innovate in every area within their influence.

We must move away from work environments that are based on command and control. We must eliminate fear for innovation to truly occur. If you are willing to take this challenge, the changes you see will astound you.

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