Is FEAR killing innovation in your workplace?

One of the greatest invisible barriers to positive change, intrapreneurialism and innovation in organisations is FEAR.

Great leaders help people to feel safe as they navigate transitions and disruptive times. This is the subject of a popular TED talk by Simon Sinek[1] entitled “Why good leaders make you feel safe”. He makes the point that when people feel unsafe, they expend their energy in protecting themselves instead of channelling it into the corporate good.

Some leaders at the top of an organisation are not leaders at all – just people with authority. They would be prepared to sacrifice others to protect themselves. In contrast, there are many people who are not inofficial leadership roles who are the embodiment of leadership because they have chosen to look after the people around them and help them to feel safe.

Research done by Ryan and Oestreich[2], in their book Driving fear out of the workplace: How to overcome the invisible barriers to quality, productivity and innovation, found that there are four main fears that prevent employees from participating in the workplace and speaking up about workplace problems. In the following order they are:

  1. They fear repercussions such as the loss of credibility and reputation with bosses and peers, harassment, being left out of the loop of organisational communication and decision-making;
  2. They believe speaking up will do no good;
  3. They wish to avoid conflict; and
  4. They want to avoid causing trouble for others.

Worse still, the research found that managerial misbehaviours spilled over into other parts of the organisation. In other words, practices in one sphere inhibited employee discussion in other areas.

When you consider that it is employee involvement and engagement that drives intrapreneurialism and innovation, any workplace where employees withhold information for fear of sharing their ideas is in for a world of pain.

What leaders can do to mitigate the negative impact of fear:

  1. Acknowledge the presence of fear and the emotions that go with it;
  2. Set a standard for interpersonal conduct, dispense with ambiguous behaviour, agree to discuss the undiscussable, collaborate on decisions, ask for input and challenge ‘worst-case’ thinking; and
  3. Engage in some degree of self-disclosure to build trust.

For positive change, innovation and intrapreneurialism to flourish within an organisation, leaders need to build a high-trust environment that demonstrates fairness, respect, candour, honesty and integrity – CONSISTENTLY.

Until next time, 


[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_why_good_leaders_make_you_feel_safe/discussion#t-375385

[2] Ryan, K. D., & Oestreich, D. K. (1991). Driving fear out of the workplace: How to overcome the invisible barriers to quality, productivity and innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dr. Irena Yashin-Shaw


E: irena@direnayashinshaw.com

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