How leaders shift from fear to innovation

As we transition into Level 1 I’m noticing different reactions in my clients – some are thrilled to be going back into their workplace and being able to connect with their colleagues more, while others have been feeling anxious or frustrated about commuting, being back in open plan offices and getting caught in distractions.  You might even have a mix of these reactions – I know I have.

Now is an important time to consider how you and your teams want to operate moving forward.  Many people have found working from home to be more productive and all of my clients are reporting a desire to have some working-from-home days each week.  There will be businesses who can accommodate this and those that can’t.  Regardless, as leaders in your organisation it’s important to acknowledge that you and your people are going through a transition process right now.  It can be very easy to try to fall back into old ways of doing things, have lower tolerance for people’s experience and get caught in business survival/recovery mode.

However, if your organisation needs to get innovative right now and truly thrive, then there’s a very important focus that you need to have as a leader.

During the last few months people’s resilience has been tested, there’s been different types of stressors to deal with and a lot of uncertainty… and there still is.  When we’re experiencing uncertainty, fear of potential threats and stress, it’s harder for our brains to really think in creative and strategic ways.  In fact, we can go into self-protect behaviours, have low tolerance and a short-term focus.  This is the lower structures of the brain taking over, operating from a place of fear and lack, when what we need at these times is more executive functioning of the higher-level structures of the brain.

So, as leaders an important question to be asking yourself is, “how can I support myself and my people to be able to come from a place of higher-level thinking?”  The key to this, is to provide an environment of high trust and psychological safety – what do I mean by that?

Trust: a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.

Psychological Safety: “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes” Amy Edmondson, Professor, Harvard Business School.

There is so much research into the important link between trust and innovation – it simply cannot be disputed.

“It has to be made clear that an innovative organisation has to create a trusting environment within the company, in order to foster collaboration, the generation of new ideas, creativity and finally innovation.” Frederik G. Pferdt, Head of innovation and creativity programs at Google (2015)


 “Promoting a culture of trust, rather than fear, encourages collaboration and builds a creative workplace.  If employees are afraid of being punished, they are less likely to take chances, and risk is essential to innovation.”  Emma Seppala, Stanford University psychologist

There are many ways that you can help to build trust and psychological safety.  Here’s some ideas to get you started:

Focus on personal connections:

Check in with your people about their home life, the effect that the lock-down has had on their family etc.  Create space to listen and acknowledge their experience.  Research shows that making these genuine connections about life outside work has a direct effect on increasing psychological safety.

Help yourself and others to regulate emotions:

Help people to express how they’re feeling by asking them how they are, and also sharing how you’re feeling – role model that vulnerability is ok.  Neuroscience research shows that when we label our feelings, we help them to move through us more quickly.  This is far more effective for emotion regulation than the “kiwi way” of suppressing emotions and “hardening up”.  When we suppress, we actually make emotions stronger and keep them stuck.  Create a safe space for sharing emotions by listening and acknowledging, without trying to fix or make them wrong.

As the leader, be a grounded anchor for your people. Work on regulating your own emotions through activities like regular movement or exercise, short mindfulness or breathing practices, taking breaks etc.   See this quick Havening Technique™ for shifting worry or stress and also our March blog with tips on how to feel more in control.

Positive emotional states are also linked to our ability to think creatively.  So, create opportunities to build positivity in your team, such as start or end team meetings with people sharing one thing that’s gone well that week or something that they’re proud of (either personally or professionally).  Look for more opportunities to give your people specific positive reinforcement.

Be transparent in your communication

Share and encourage open dialogue on information, ideas, fears, changes, concerns, aspirations and goals.  Create space to discuss what people valued during lock down, what they found challenging and how you could incorporate these insights in how you work together moving forward.  Be clear on what’s possible and what’s not possible to create.  Be transparent about priorities and have regular check-ins on outcomes.  Use a coaching approach to idea generation, setting agreements around creative discussions and asking open curious questions that stimulate and open thinking.

Here’s what some of the experts say about the link between transparency and innovation:

“When you have transparency, it builds trust. First, our employees feel engaged. We share everything we can, horizontally and vertically. Transparency and knowing everything that’s going on within the company gives Googlers a sense of ownership and deepens engagement. Second, our employees have a voice, we empower them to ask questions and raise concerns. This gives rise to better ideas and helps improve things. Plus, it reinforces the idea that everyone can participate.” Frederik G. Pferdt, Head of innovation and creativity programs at Google (2015)


“My studies have shown that transparency is a key factor in sustaining trust in high-performing organizations. And that, in turn, helps drive innovation.” Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., Professor and the author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies.

Create a safe space to experiment and fail forward

True innovation requires taking risks and learning from failures, this is why high trust and psychological safety are crucial.  Create environments where it’s ok to test out new ways of doing things and re-frame failure as important feedback.  Positively reinforce people for trying different approaches and contributing outside-the-box ideas.  Create guidelines and containers for experimenting and applying learning.

Building high-trust cultures

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can cultivate high trust cultures where employees take greater responsibility and feel more engaged, then take a look at our blended learning programme “Coaching Essentials for Leaders”.  In this programme you’ll learn powerful communication techniques, trust building, giving feedback that creates sustainable behaviour change, how to help people generate new perspectives and thinking, and to take ownership for their own development.

Want to know more? Book a chat with me today!