What To Do When A Fear Of Innovation Holds Your Organization Back

5 min read | Kelly Primus

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Earlier in my career, I was caught off guard when I was asked during a job interview, "How do you innovate?" It was a question I couldn’t answer, and it became a defining moment that has stuck with me throughout my career. Today, as Leading NOW's CEO, it’s a question I often ask our clients when advising them on how to create a culture of inclusion and innovation.

Innovations challenge the status quo and incite change. But they don’t have to be major breakthroughs in technology or a new business model. A 2022 Harvard Business School Online article states that an innovation is "a product, service, business model or strategy that’s both novel and useful." So it can be anything from upgrading an existing service to creating an industry-breaking product.

Of course, innovative ideas aren’t created out of thin air. They’re created by people—teams of people. And according to Great Place to Work research, diverse and inclusive teams are the key. When a team has several perspectives in the mix, it can approach problem-solving in ways that, while potentially uncomfortable at first, are very effective in the long term. It helps increase the chances of moving forward with a game-changing idea. And what organization doesn’t want that? 

So if innovation is crucial to the continued success of an organization, what could possibly hold companies back from shaking things up?

In a single word: fear.


Innovation Requires A Feeling Of Safety

According to McKinsey & Company, fear is the number one barrier to innovation; 85% of executives polled said this feeling hinders innovation efforts often or always in their organizations. In fact, there are three things that people are most afraid of in the face of innovation: criticism, uncertainty and a negative impact on one’s career. And I couldn’t agree with these results more.

In order for organizations to innovate, there must be a sense of psychological safety within the working environment. Simply put, the workplace culture needs to be a safe space for people to share their thoughts and ideas. When the fear of rejection, humiliation or criticism is prevalent within teams or across an organization, it keeps people from voicing preliminary ideas, asking questions or brainstorming out loud.

You may not know this, but Google, one of the most innovative companies in the world, jumpstarted the tech industry’s obsession with psychological safety. In 2012, the company launched its Project Aristotle initiative, a two-year study to determine why some teams were more successful than others. The research found that particular norms in team dynamics were vital to success, such as making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But more than anything else, psychological safety was critical.


5 Ways To Reduce Fear And Support Innovation

Thanks to Google's study, it's clear that innovation can't exist without a sense of safety. If you want your organization to be innovative, you must build an environment where employees are comfortable—and encouraged—to share their ideas and perspectives.

To best create a culture of innovation, here are five things leaders can implement.

  1. Encourage Transparency: Free-flowing information is an essential, highly impactful ingredient for innovation. Transparency breeds trust, which in turn breeds employee engagement and connections. Together, these things encourage creative thinking and give employees the confidence to share ideas.
  2. Don't Micromanage: Psychological safety requires a sense of autonomy. Employees want to know they can thoroughly explore their solution to a problem without constant interruptions. So leaders should take a more hands-off approach and consider only reviewing project efforts during dedicated team meetings.
  3. Provide Guardrails: A successful workplace culture has protocols that keep teams focused on specific business outcomes and standardized checkpoints to minimize the risk that resources are being spent on nonviable ideas. Leaders should ensure their teams focus on the most important things, align their efforts and track progress toward achieving their objectives.
  4. Support Creativity: Come up with creative ways to put teams together and jointly address a problem. For example, some companies host a 24-hour hackathon where groups can pick from a set list of topics to come up with innovative solutions.
  5. Embrace Failure: Make sure teams know that making mistakes is okay. In fact, encourage the mindset that there are no failures—only opportunities to learn. Not everything conceived will be successful, but that shouldn't discourage people from trying something new.

As the late Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” It's a company's lifeblood. Luckily, innovation can be a learned behavior as long as people feel safe enough to freely express their ideas.

Isn’t it time you eliminate employees' fears and create a culture of innovation?

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Forbes Human Resources Council_LogoThis article was originally written for the Forbes Human Resources Council, and published on the Forbes website in November 2023. You can see Kelly Lockwood Primus' other Forbes articles on her author page