Fear: The Big Inhibitor of Innovation and Transformation

Momentum is growing in the corporate world — more and more companies are realizing that the convergence of advancing technologies will fundamentally change how we live and how we work.

This realization has led some leaders to initiate either a digital transformation or the building of an innovation system. In many cases, the ultimate objective is to “win” — beat the competition by increasing the speed and quality of human learning in order to attain the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance in concert with advancing technologies.

Questions that are commonly asked include: Where do we start? How do we structure the initiative? Is the initiative company-wide or siloed? Who leads the initiative? What technology do we need? What skills are we lacking? What is our competition doing? How will we train our employees for new roles as these technologies are implemented?

Questions that are rarely asked happen to be as important: How do we handle the human, emotional part of the transformation? How do we lead in a way so that our employees will emotionally embrace the new learning and ways of working that need to occur? How do we minimize one of the biggest human inhibitors to transformation: fear?

Transformation Starts at the TOP!

An organization can’t transform unless its people transform. And its people won’t transform unless their managers and leaders transform. Leaders and managers must role model the new desired mindsets and behaviors that are necessary to successfully accomplish the transformation.

We all know that change is hard — especially in successful companies. People can become complacent in doing what they already do, especially if it has worked well in the past. But the old corporate axiom “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” no longer applies in an environment of fast-paced technological change. Successful organizations today have to be constantly proactive, not reactive and defensive.

Transformation requires the mitigation of fear. Mitigating the fear of failing, the fear of not knowing what to do, the fear of learning new skills, and the fear of losing one’s position or job. Change can be scary for employees — especially for employees who do not have the skills needed for the new way of working, and especially for employees who do not have significant financial reserves to fall back upon if they find themselves needing to change jobs. People cannot learn when they are fearful.

What has surprised us in our transformation work is that leaders and managers can be just as fearful of the transformative change as employees. For managers and executives, the fear can be a fear of losing what they now have (power, status, responsibilities) or the anxiety about whether they have the abilities to do what will be necessary in order to lead in this new era. We have seen leaders sink underneath conference tables when it was suggested that they do a transformative pilot program. The fear of not knowing can be big.

Managers and leaders can deal with these fears many different ways. Reflexive responses can be:

  • The “corporate grin and nodding yes” with the internal talk being “no way”
  • Doing the minimal necessary to buy into the change or transformation initiative, hoping to make it to stock option vesting or retirement doing what one has done before
  • Delegating responsibility for the change initiative to a group, creating distance — not having direct responsibility for the initiative so failure is not attributed to them
  • Half-heartedly undertaking the transformation, believing this initiative — like many in the past — will blow over

We have seen all of these attitudes in the last few years inside very successful companies that have embarked on a major transformation initiative

How does a leadership team get to the place where they can admit their individual fears and find ways to support each other in acknowledging and working through those fears? How does a leadership team create a work environment that makes it easier for employees to deal with their fears? An answer to these questions begins with “the why.”

The WHY

The first part of mitigating fear is having a reason to embrace the fear — a story that each employee can identify with in answering the question: Why should I change? That story is a story of why the organization must change and a story of why each individual needs to learn new ways of working to enable that organizational change. Employees need to make meaning personally of the Why in ways that that make sense to them. That “making sense” must emotionally connect with the individual.

Often, we need to help people find the “WIFM” — the what’s in it for me? Will it help me stay relevant? Will it help my career? Will it help me a better person or more successful in my life? We don’t usually know what will resonate, but ultimately the motivation needs to come from an intrinsic place. Conversations with employees individually and/or in small teams are necessary. The company story and the common individual whys must be continuously discussed and referred to for a long period of time until the new way of working becomes a habit. And the new way of working requires people to embrace their fears and to have the courage to go forward. Change is hard. Helping people buy in to change takes time and effort by leaders and managers.

If people buy in to the Why then they can move to the How. What mindsets and behaviors will be needed to accomplish the transformation? What kind of work environment is needed to enable those new mindsets and behaviors — both culturally and process-wise?

The HOW

With respect to mitigating fear, culturally the leadership needs to create a “psychologically safe workplace” following the research of Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School. A psychologically safe workplace is one where people agree to do no harm to each other and to act civilly at all times. It is a place where everyone can speak up, be candid and have difficult conversations without the fear of — or actual — punishment or retribution.

It is a place where it is safe to challenge the status quo, to challenge each other’s thinking, to challenge higher-ups’ thinking and decisions, to admit one’s mistakes, and to say I don’t know. A safe workplace should mitigate corporate politics and internal competition, and it should enable collaboration, teamwork and learning. In order for that to happen, leaders and managers need to empower people and ensure their safety. Leaders need to show their own weaknesses, they need to fail in front of others and pick themselves back up and try again. Initiatives and trials need to be rewarded, not only the successes, but the effort and spirit. At some point this becomes the norm.

Conquering Fear

Everyone is fearful — individual differences are a matter of degree. And what differs is how one manages his or her fears.

Behaviorally, how do leaders enable workers to overcome their fears? How do leaders learn to personally embrace and deal with their own fears? Leaders need to become more human by acknowledging their fears publicly to others and encouraging their direct reports to do the same. Having nonjudgmental, respectful, caring, compassionate, safe conversations about fear starts at the top. Leaders have to take the first steps in being vulnerable with others and leaders need to have the conversations with others that result in the co-creation of the rules of engagement that can lead to creating an environment where it is psychologically safe for employees to talk about and work through their fears of change.

We have learned that for many leaders it is much easier to start the fear discussion by asking them a series of questions: “Why would your employees be fearful of the change that is needed? What can you do to mitigate that fear?” Then move to the personal discussion. “What about you — what fears do you have about the transformation? How can you mitigate your fear?” Transformation is very personal, and though we read studies and survey outcomes, we very infrequently hear about reasons for the fears. Acknowledging that everyone has personal reasons for their fears is a powerful step.

Then managers and leaders can have conversations with small groups of employees and ask them what they need from the company in order not to be so fearful and to be courageous. Leaders and managers can ask employees: “How can I help you feel safe here? What do I need to do differently?”

We are not saying you should lower your standards of performance. What we are saying is that if you want big changes in human behaviors, you need to face fear in the workplace courageously, both individually and organizationally.

As Abraham Maslow so aptly stated:

“An individual engages in learning to the extent he (or she) is not crippled by fear and to the extent he (or she) feels safe enough to dare.”

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration, Batten executive-in-residence and a Batten Faculty Fellow at Darden. Dr. Donna Murdoch is an adjunct assistant professor of Adult Learning and Leadership at Columbia University Teachers College and a partner at Rose Rock Dynamics.

About the Faculty

Edward D. Hess

Hess is a top authority on organizational and human high performance. His studies focus on growth, innovation and learning cultures, systems and processes, and servant leadership.

Hess has authored 12 books, including The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System and Processes, co-authored by Darden Professor Jeanne Liedtka, Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Entrepreneurial... Learn More

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