Removing Fear Can Be Your Innovation Breakthrough

We’ve all had that kind of boss. The thought of him or her walking around the corner is enough to strike fear in the heart of Darth Vader. Hated by all, these bosses are tolerated under the assumption that their crude persona is required to get the job done. But the truth is we’ve been had. When it comes to motivating teams to think creatively, the right leadership qualities look shockingly different.

It’s true fear can be a big motivator. You may avoid a dark alley and go an extra block out of fear for your well-being, and would likely run the best mile of your life, being chased by a hungry black bear. However, the fear of severe health problems hasn’t been enough to motivate most Americans to eat healthy and stay active. Fear seems to be a great motivator in some cases, and an awful motivator in others.

So, when is fear good and when is it bad? And how does that relate to workplace creativity?

Author Daniel Pink, who has written on creativity and human motivation in his best-selling books, is a pro in behavior change. “Negative emotions, fear being the poster child, narrow our perspective,” Pink told me. “That’s why fear is a great motivator for escaping a burning building. It focuses us like a laser beam. Positive emotions, by contrast, typically widen our perspective. That’s why fear isn’t so great a motivator for, say, long term, creative, conceptual tasks.”

The science leans Pink’s direction. Maria Clapham, a psychology professor at Drake University, believes fear can inhibit our creativity greatly.

“Creativity is associated with cognitive fluency and flexibility. Research also suggests that temporal affective states can have an impact on cognitive fluency and flexibility,” Clapham said. “Specifically, research has shown that positive affect can enhance creative performance. Conversely, highly stressful experiences may enhance the likelihood of producing dominant responses while reducing cognitive fluency and flexibility. Because fear is a stress response, it may negatively impact fluency and flexibility, and thus constrain creativity.”

Soon Yu, global vice president of innovation at VF Corporation, the owner of iconic brands such as The North Face, Vans, SmartWool and Timberland, says his company is taking note. VF Corporation believes not only that we should limit fear in the workplace, but abolish it entirely. It sounds like an overly simplistic view point, but Yu has seen some astounding progress.

In VF’s journey to be more innovative they are making strong efforts to remove fear from their company culture and one of those strategies has to do with tackling one of our greatest fears: the fear of change. How does a large company like VF maintain positive and frequent change without the added fear that typically comes as a bi-product? It’s a strategy Yu calls “Shrinking the Change” which they learned with best-selling author, Chip Heath.

Using an analogy of kids cleaning their bedroom, Yu mentioned that asking them to clean the entire room can cause fear of the seemingly large task at hand, but breaking it down into a five-minute starting point makes the task less overwhelming. Once the task is started it isn’t as intimidating as first believed to be and the fear associated fades away. This methodology scales up nicely for bigger tasks at the professional level where change is constantly broken into smaller less intimidating bits. In this way, big changes that would typically make people fearful of innovation and forward movement are minimized and more easily tackled.

This reduction of fear seems to be working. When Yu was brought in as a part of the team to catalyze new ideas, creative ideas started popping up. So much so that VF developed a Corporate Innovation Fund. This allows them to put their money where their mouth is, literally investing in their employee’s ideas. Over the last 4.5 years, they have funded over 100 employee ideas contributing to what they estimate as a $2 billion product pipeline.

Ideas like “Shrinking The Change,” Innovation funds, and other initiatives encouraging employees to “go outside” to find new ideas, are all fine and dandy, but VF’s response to failure really inspires creativity. By his own admission, Yu is a self-taught master of human failure. Before coming to VF in 2010, Yu had four career restarts, five of his own start-ups dissolved, six layoffs conducted, and twenty-plus product launch failures (at one point he had a 300 credit score). In a situation where most leaders would be inhibited by blinding by fear, Eric Wiseman and Stephen Dull hired him despite the potential risk. “My No. 1 job is to be the biggest failure in the company and be okay with it.” Yu said.

Removing fear isn’t easy. It means you have to be exceptional at managing it in a way it doesn’t affect others. When you let fear control you, it starts exhibiting symptoms and has a ripple effect on those you know and manage. “When fear becomes exposed or external, it spreads. It’s hard to be a courageous employee when your leader is scared,” Yu said.

When leaders stop letting fear drive them, fear stops driving their employees. When this happens they share ideas openly without solicitation, exhibit more helpful behavior, and make suggestions in other areas that aren’t even tied to their own job. As Pink points out, these positive emotions motivate the long term creative thinking that is so crucial for innovation.

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