Fear: The No 1 Enemy of Innovation and Creativity.

ARE WE THE ONLY GENERATION THAT has become obsessed with innovation? No!

The human evolution transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic period, some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago is also referred to as Neolithic Revolution, because of the speed of technological innovation.

These primitive humans started to try and use different materials for their hunting tools. In fact, in 2013 a team of researchers from Canadian and American universities made an exciting discovery, where they unearthed some hunting tools from an ancient oasis in Jordan dated 250,000 years ago.

Let me share an interesting off-beat story of our ancient relatives, the cavemen.

A hunter-gatherer father and son return back to their cave after a successful day of hunting. They put their hunter spears down and sat down for some rest. The mother bought some stack of wood for the fire in the evening. After lighting the fire, the father and son duo started chatting.

The son, saw a new spear leaning against the cave wall. Out of curiosity, he asked his father about it. The father boasted about a new material that he has discovered, which he has used to create a new light spear. It was just waiting for some testing and experimentation.

Suddenly, they heard a loud scream. When they both looked at the mother, they saw her staring at the cave entrance. They followed her gaze and to their ultimate fear, a ferocious Tiger stood with his fangs bared. In a sudden reflex, the father rushed to fetch his spear.

The son, “dad, isn’t it a great opportunity to try our new innovation, the new spear”. But, ignoring his son’s call the father grabbed his old spear and threw it with full force onto the invader. The shot hit spot on, killing the big cat immediately.

“Dad, don’t you think we missed an opportunity to experiment with our new weapon!” the son complained.

“No,” Dad continued, “Son, this was not the right time to try our new idea. In times of fear, it’s always better to stick with the tried and tested old spear to ensure our safety. Fear time is not the time for creativity and thinking. It’s time to survive,”

Leaders reading this, please note: – Fear time is not the time for creativity and innovation. Fear kills innovation and creativity. I hope you are listening.

Though a Cavemen story, the lesson is still relevant. Whenever a company injects fear into their employees and a Leader lead through Fear, Threats, Ultimatums, and Pink Slips, the first casualty is innovation. Creativity shuts down, experimentation stops, ideation ceases and strategic thinking evaporates. Why? Because the goal post shifts from growth and progress to mere survival. Just Think!

Still, don’t believe? Let me offer you a scientific explanation, through the findings of Neuroscientists.

We all know that fear creates stress. When the brain detects stress, the Stress Response System goes into action. The first region that gets activated is Amygdala: our internal panic button, a structure the size of an almond in the middle of the brain. The amygdala sends signals to another area of the brain called the HPA axis, which consists of the Hypothalamus, the Pituitary, and the Adrenal.

The first thing our brain (Superhero) does is to reach out to Hypothalamus, which in turn wakes up the Pituitary gland. The gland which is almost the size of a pea releases ACTH hormones, they act as messengers traveling to wake up the Adrenal glands. The Adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidney finally release Cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is a supercharger, releasing energy into the body.

This leads to bodily changes. It triggers a cascade of activity. Blood pressure and blood sugar rise, heart rate goes up, the brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate and breathing accelerates, blood flow and stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs, not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal and immune system slow down. In short, fear activates the famous Fight and Flight response.

The amygdala shares a special connection with another very important part of the brain called the Prefrontal cortex (PFC).

PFC is the control center of our brain, controlling all the cognitive and executive functions like logic, reasoning, planning, decision making, judgement, awareness, etc.

It is thus called the CEO of our brain. Another important role is to control the emotional responses to stress. But the stress created by fear hijacks the PFC and shut’s it down. And as cognitive and executive functions get impaired, the brain gets foggy and how can you innovate with a foggy brain.

A survey in 2012 highlights how fear is the biggest roadblock to innovation.

In the survey, employees share the fear variables:

Fear of making a mistake.

Fear of getting fired.

Fear of disagreements with boss and co-workers.

Fear of conflict with the management.

Fear of speaking out-shooting the messenger.

Fear of dealing with clients.

Only 3% of participant employees were fearless.

Do you think that the above 97% can really think and innovate? They will exhaust their entire energy to keep themselves safe.

Peter Drucker, the founder of modern management dedicated his whole life speaking against the fear of culture. According to him to an extent fear of outside forces, such as competitors, can be healthy, but internal fears are not. “Fear of a threat to the community unites, “Peter Drucker” mentioned in the Practice of Management. “But fear of someone within the community divides and corrodes. It corrupts both him who uses fear and him who fears.

Where fear lives and rules innovation dies. Fear paralyzes, fear inhibits. Fear will put your people in the box, then how will they think out of the box. Many feel that fear is a natural motivator, which gets the work done. Agreed fear is a natural instinct as it protects us from danger. But the question is, does the workplace should feel like a dangerous place. Having a touch of fear to an extent that it challenges your people to stretch is ok, but not the culture of fear.

A culture of fear cripples’ innovation. If you motivate people by fear, they will end up doing the minimum needed for them to survive. This might increase productivity to a limited extent. To grow you need to thrive not survive.

The world is already facing a global pandemic, where fear has become the norm. At least in our organizations, lets create a “New Normal” where employees can feel safe and secure.

As a Leader inoculate your people with anti-fear virus.   

Let me know your thoughts on this issue in the comments section below!

Less Fear, More Innovation!


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