Innovation requires participation, not silence
Innovation is no longer optional. Organizations must continually experiment with new ways of working. But having the right talent is not enough if people don’t share their ideas. Only three in 10 employees strongly agree that their opinions count at work, a 2017 Gallup survey found. The lack of a psychologically safe space prevents people from speaking up.
Fear doesn’t promote innovation but silence.
We Have a Silence Problem
Change can (and must) happen from anywhere and everywhere in the organization. Listening to your team voices goes well beyond inclusion or respect. People are sensors — they see issues and opportunities that ‘management is missing.’
Instead of sharing ideas, people keep secrets. It’s a common thread in many organizations— everyone knows what’s broken, but expect someone else to fix things.
The ‘bystander effect’ occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in a situation. There’s a perceived diffusion of responsibility — people stay on the sidelines waiting for others to act rather than do something themselves. A set of studies published in the Academy of Management shows that, when multiple employees know about an issue, each one becomes less willing to speak up about it.
This explains why recurring problems are not addressed. It’s also the other side of the Iceberg of Ignorance story. That frontline employees see 100% of the issues — while CEOs observe only 4% — means nothing if people don’t speak up or do something.
Managers must remind their teams that their individual voices are not redundant. They must encourage people to “if you see something, do something.” Sometimes, bringing things up is not enough — people must take ownership of the problem too. Most importantly, create a safe space for people to speak up without the fear of being put down or punished.
Fear makes the bystander effect even worse. Fearlessness is not about suppressing fear but facing it — the emotional culture must be addressed, not silenced.
We must pay attention to the quiet people.
Fearlessness Is Not Silencing Emotions
Fear has become “one of the most pervasive emotions in the workplace today,” writes Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University.
Organizations are often presented as rational enterprises. However, the emotional culture is as important as the cognitive one — we must integrate the shared intellectual aspects with the emotional ones. Fear, for example, can bring the best or the worst out of your team.
On February 2003, space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned to Earth, killing all seven astronauts on board. The accident could have been prevented though. And saved NASA the two years it spent studying the incident. Fear got in the way — it prevented mid-level engineers from being more vocal.
Columbia suffered some damage to the edge of its left wing during the launch. Most people dismissed it, but engineer Rodney Rocha wanted to get better images to calculate how this could affect the re-entry. Managers believed that a “small chunk of Styrofoam could NOT doom the shuttle.” After many attempts to be heard, Rocha stepped back in a critical meeting with the higher-ups — a culture of fear silenced the issue.
A Fearless Culture is one where people act as sensors — they speak up because their voices matters.
“I just couldn’t do it. I’m too low down (in the hierarchy).” — Rocha replied when questioned during the formal investigation. Experts were trying to understand why he stayed silent. His response didn’t just surprise the investigators; it became a warning sign for every organization — people know what’s broken in a project, but fear keeps them silent.
This Is Fear
Fearless is not the absence of fear but confronting it. Courageous leaders are not immune to fear — they just don’t let it get in their way.
Fear is a signal about something that is about to happen. Former US Navy SEAL Brandon Webb wrote, “Fear is no illusion. Fear is real. Convince yourself that it isn’t and you’re already dead.” For the author, fear is a battle that takes place in your mind — mastering fear is about identifying and changing the conversation in your head.
Most people try to suppress fear. However, silencing that alarm is harmful — we miss the real problem of threat. Precisely what happened to NASA.
NAVY Seals pay close attention to this signal.“This is fear,” Webb used to reflect before imminent battle action, “And I’m about to use it.” Confronting fear is how you make it work in your favor, not against you.
Innovation requires making mistakes and facing the unknown — people must become comfortable with being uncomfortable. They must acknowledge that fear is a universal human emotion. Some people are afraid of being fired — others of being mocked. Many can’t stand the prospect of failure.
Fear affects people’s behavior whether organizations address them or not. When people can’t overcome being afraid, they become defensive — they just want to protect their own interests. Acknowledging fear increases self-awareness — what is this signal saying about your organization?
How to Move From Fear to Fearlessness
Shifting from a culture of fear to one of fearlessness is not simple. It takes time to reframe how people have been feeling for many many years. Leaders must start by addressing, rather than ignoring, this powerful emotion.
I will be sharing a more detailed-approach in my upcoming webinar. In the meantime, here are some initial thoughts to get you started.
1. Trust people:
This is the most obvious, yet critical, step. If you want people to be more accountable, give them freedom — control promotes fear, not trust.
This in-depth Quartz article unveils one of the key reasons Japanese automakers defeated the “Gestapo” of GM: they trusted that people wanted to do good work and treated them accordingly. In the 70s, GM’s newly automated assembly was too fast, and employees didn’t have enough time to do their job. When something went wrong, they couldn’t stop the process, creating a record of car recalls.
Toyota’s approach, on the other hand, put full trust in employees. People were encouraged to look for flaws as vehicles went down the line. The ‘Andon cord’ — a symbol of autonomy — was like an emergency brake to stop the manufacturing process at any time. Any employee could pull it — quality mattered more than the financial impact of delaying production.
2. Create a Safe Space:
Promoting Psychological Safety is key. People must feel safe to speak up, share their opinions, take risks and experiment. This doesn’t mean feeling protected but safe to stretch beyond their comfort zone.
Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, believes that his job as a manager is “to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.” Creating a safe environment, where trust becomes an inherent part of the culture, accelerates innovation.
You don’t have to tell people to be creative or to aim higher; they feel inspired on their own. As Catmull said, “We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute.” When people feel safe, silence is no longer needed.
3. Address the emotional culture:
Emotions can block or lubricate collaboration. Organizations can’t get rid of feelings; they might ignore them, but they can’t avoid how they affect performance. Most CEOs don’t like to hear bad news. Thus, forcing people to fake how they feel or think.
Ask your team how they feel. Have listening meetings. Incorporate check-ins at the beginning of meetings. Role model by expressing your own emotions. If someone is going through a rough patch, invite them to step out of a meeting or take a break.
By increasing self-awareness, you and your team can adjust their workload. Research has discovered that to overcome procrastination, for example, emotion-management is much more effective than time-management.
4. Be Explicit about Mistakes:
Mistakes are a necessary price to pay to increase experimentation. As Ed Catmull wrote, “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”
Organizations should live their “mistakes policy” — to make it explicit and reward people for trying new thing and taking risks. Rajan Tata, founder and chairman of Tata, created a prize for the Best Failed Idea. He believed failure is a gold mine and wanted to spark innovation and keep his team from avoiding risks.
People pay more attention to behaviors than words. In my consulting, I see how people are afraid of making mistakes regardless of their ‘bosses’ encouragement to experiment. How do you reward those who experiment? Does your team hide its mistakes? Or do they celebrate the lessons of failure?
5. Be courageous
To experience fearlessness, we need to experience fear first. Cowards don’t acknowledge the reality of their worries; they run away from them — we must stop seeing fear as a weakness.
When you can address your emotions without hiding them, you invite your team to embrace their own fears — self-awareness, vulnerability, and empathy are essential for being a successful leader. Lead with questions. You don’t need to have all the answers — the leader who asks needs courage.
As Nelson Mandela wrote, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
A Fearless Culture is not suppressing fear but making emotions work in your favor.
What role does fear play in your organization?