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Our fears narrow our perceptions, limit our potential, stifle our creativity and exhaust the energy for innovation, according to Andrew Papageorge.

Shortly after the death of the harsh Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, his successor Nikita Khrushchev was addressing the Supreme Soviet Council. As the new leader denounced his predecessor’s terrible crimes, a voice in the back called out: “Comrade, you were there. Why did not you stop him?”

Khrushchev looked around the hall with a look of intense disgust and yelled, “Who said that? Show your face! I want to know who said that!” No one spoke. No hand went up. After a long and uncomfortable silence, Khrushchev said, “Now you know why.”

Fear exists in every organization. This includes:

  • Fear of challenging a dictatorial boss
  • Fear of confronting cherished dogmas
  • Fear of making mistakes
  • Fear of showing ignorance

The greatest fear is admitting we are fearful. Having this awareness is the start of a whole new world. All our fears narrow our perceptions, limit our potential, stifle our creativity and exhaust the energy for innovation. When we do not tell the truth, we withhold critical information that undermines the quality of decisions. If we are not willing to make mistakes, we will not be able to innovate.

Innovation thrives where everyone can “tell the truth” and not be admonished for so-called “failures.” As IBM’s legendary founder Thomas Watson said upon retirement: “If I had it all to do over again, I would have encouraged employees to make more mistakes.”

As leaders of innovation, we cannot eliminate fear in our organizations. But we can reduce it. We can do this by nurturing an environment where innovation can flourish; show understanding and acceptance of intelligent failure; and respond openly when ideas are challenged.

In such an open environment, innovation will boom. It takes time and commitment to empower an organization in which people feel safe. However, as we lower this fear, we will increase the speed and effectiveness of innovation and, consequently, our collective success.

Here are some tips for reducing fear levels in your organization:

  • Follow the law of feedback: This states there is no failure, only feedback. Successful people look at failure as an “event,” an opportunity to embrace learning in the process of success.
  • Encourage and reward autonomy: Honor ideas that challenge accepted norms and objectives.
  • Support creative experiments: Encourage all brainstorming and input that serves the mission of the organization.

Andrew Papageorge has been consulting and training in the field of innovation for 30 years and is the author of the GoInnovate! System.  A resident of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif, he can be reached at: [email protected].

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