Banishing Fear and Feeding Innovation

January 16, 2024 Britney Cole

If you want your people to be more innovative, you need to eliminate fear. And that's a tricky proposition.

Innovation requires the sharing of ideas, honesty, and taking risks. But many of us are haunted by fears that stifle innovation: fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of other people’s opinions, and fear of being exposed as an impostor. These fears are widespread and influence how we act. For example, some 31% of Americans are afraid of failure.

A lack of psychological safety in the workplace also chokes innovation. Only 26% of employees feel psychological safety at work. When there is little psychological safety, people won't be honest or engaged. They'll be too busy protecting themselves to have the energy for innovation.

In our new Fearless Innovation™ program, just released this November, we share some ways you can create an environment of innovation.

Develop an Innovation Mindset

The leader’s role in building an innovative culture is to be a positive role model. This means demonstrating the mindset of innovation, which we define as:

  • Grace — The courage to accept imperfection. 
  • Curiosity — The courage to wonder and wander. 
  • Proactivity — The courage to act and disrupt. 

Leaders must practice this mindset on a daily basis, not just when people want to innovate. People take cues from what their leaders do, and imitate their actions. Saying that you want your people to be more innovative means nothing if you aren't practicing the mindset.

Protect Your People

A leader's role in innovation can be likened to a roof on a house. The leader is there to protect the team member from whatever storms might be swirling around them. Leaders stand watch over their people, making sure that the crisis of the day or office politics don't affect their work.

The Role of the Leader

As a leader, you have tremendous influence in ensuring that innovation happens on your team. Innovation and risk taking are fragile things that are easier to develop than to rebuild. Your role is to clearly communicate the importance of innovation and to foster an environment that promotes the space for it to happen.   

Innovative leaders tend to be results oriented. They are attracted to possibilities and opportunities, and they draw others into their orbit. These leaders are persuasive communicators who share ideas and information, building coalitions and support for the team’s innovations. They also balance support and direction and keep up morale—especially when experiments fail. They know how to maintain productivity. 

Here are behaviors you should adopt if you want your team to innovate:

  • Lead and participate in activities together.
  • Share little and big ideas.
  • Acknowledge and show gratitude for people who put themselves out there.
  • Build the culture over time—ideation is not a one-time activity.

Innovation Accelerators

Leaders can accelerate the pace of innovation using a number of approaches. The first is to make innovation a stated goal of the team. Here are a few more:

  • Give people the time and resources they need to be innovative.
  • Encourage risk taking and experimentation. Innovation is not business as usual; it is about trying something new and unproven. If people are to have the courage to act, they need their leaders to be consistent champions of their efforts.
  • Recognize people for their work. This means praising them publicly for trying something new. A leader must recognize people not only for what they accomplish but also for what they try to accomplish—because innovation is a risky undertaking with no guaranteed reward.
  • Include diverse perspectives. Dozens of studies prove that diverse teams are more productive, profitable, and creative than teams made up of similar individuals. The key is to make sure everyone feels welcome and everyone contributes.

Expect Imperfection

It's good to take stock of your expectations when it comes to innovation, especially since the results are so unpredictable. At Blanchard, when we try something new, we call it “the first pancake.” The first pancake off the griddle is never as tasty as the ones that follow. The same holds true for innovation: initial attempts are like the first pancake. As people become more comfortable with failing and experimenting, an environment for innovation flourishes.

Leaders can either pop the innovation balloon with the wrong words and attitude, or they can help their people feel safe enough to share their ideas. This means expecting imperfection, not swooping in and fixing the problem.

Ideally, a leader allows their team members to reach their own conclusions. This requires patience and a tolerance for imperfection. It also entails not putting unrealistic expectations on your team—because that can lead to people becoming discouraged or even quitting.

Here's another way to put it: don't expect perfection too soon. Perfection is the enemy of innovation.

Use Constraints to Your Advantage

Many leaders dislike constraints when it comes to innovating. But research shows that having the right amount of constraints actually promotes innovation. Tell people instead of viewing constraints as a limitation to try seeing them as something that helps keep them focused—because those are the facts.

As an innovative leader, here are some behaviors you can demonstrate:

  • Use constraints to your advantage.
  • Sequence your approach (you can do it all, but you can’t do it all right now).
  • Celebrate risk taking, learning, mistakes, progress, and success.
  • Shift conversations from blaming to learning.
  • Create a risk-friendly culture, even if it doesn’t exist in the larger organization.
  • Share your own mistakes.

Innovation Dampeners

Just as a leader can accelerate innovation, they can also bring it to a halt. Taking credit for someone else's ideas is a great example of this.  

Criticizing someone and their ideas is another way for a leader to destroy the innovative spirit. In fact, the absence of criticism is necessary for creating psychological safety. This doesn't mean that a leader should show toxic positivity. The best approach is a candid exchange—without criticism—at the appropriate time in the process.

A final innovation dampener is celebrating wins but criticizing losses. It’s worth remembering that it takes five praises to offset one criticism. The same rule should hold here.

Prioritize Innovation

Innovation can be an iterative process made up of small advances. It can be a reinvention of the way things are done. It can be a new idea that grows into a business revolution.

Innovation is progress—and that's something every leader prizes. Now you know how to make innovation a reality in your workplace.

About the Author

Britney Cole

Britney Cole is Vice President of Innovation and the Head of the Blanchard Innovation Lab and Experience Center. She creates an atmosphere of excitement and forward-thinking for clients who want to rethink what it truly means to unleash the potential and power in people and organizations for the greater good.

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