Bob Eckert : Fear: The Great Innovation Killer

Creating Growth Through Innovation

Fear: The Great Innovation Killer

How to use the longest running global pandemic to your advantage.

By Bob Eckert | Updated 4/15/16

Fear. It can keep you alive. And it can kill you. It's a powerful, unpleasant emotion that causes us to pay attention to our surroundings with great vigilance so that we can react as quickly as possible to any potential danger coming our way before it's… TOO LATE! That vigilance keeps us alive.

DangerConversely, it can kill us when it keeps us from doing the smart thing. Like when we stomp our foot hard on the brake (of our non-anti-lock-brake-equipped car), and keep it stomped causing us to skid over the cliff, instead of pumping the brakes and steering around the curve safely. If we hadn't had a fear-induced reaction, we could have avoided a bumpy "flight with no beverage service due to short duration."

The Advantage of Fear

In the world of human interaction and innovation, fear has its advantages and disadvantages as well. It helps inventiveness when our fear of loss causes us to be vigilant for new opportunities so we see and act on them before the competition does. This is why the research (and our professional experience) shows that the organizations that are most likely to engage in deliberate innovation on an enterprise-wide basis are those in "distress situations," meaning when the fear of failure is staring you in the face, and the fear motivates you to take drastic action.

Interpersonally, it helps us when our fear prompts us to act to improve a relationship or apologize for a wrong-doing because we anticipate a loss in respect, rapport, effectiveness or credibility from others if we let ourselves live our lives with low emotional intelligence.

The Fear Trap

The problem with fear as a motivator is that we human beings fall into a pattern where fear is the most common and most powerful motivator, which means that too much of our thinking and choice-making becomes fear-based. This is, of course, perfectly excusable (yet not right) from the perspective of humans evolving and learning. Primitive people learned that it was more important to keep vigilant for predators and enemies as they hunted and gathered than it was to find the fattest deer or the plumpest berry. Those that were most vigilant for danger were those most likely to survive to find food and reproduce. We're wired as a species to have our danger-avoidance functions take precedence over our pleasure-seeking functions (except in the area of sexuality, but that's another newsletter, or perhaps another website). So the modern trap is that we are vigilant for danger far more than we need to be in our safe, modern and relatively new environment. What are the effects of fear?

  • We thoughtlessly kill new ideas (which look foreign, strange, and weird) rather than curiously trying to find the value in every idea.
  • We avoid the difficult relationship-building conversation because it might go badly, rather than hoping for success or looking to learn from potential failure.
  • We restrain ourselves from speaking what we know to be true because our perspective might be challenged, rather than seeing the challenge as a way of maturing or changing our perspective.

What is not excusable in our contemporary world is to stay thoughtlessly stuck in the primitive patterns driven by fear of newness that kept us alive in primitive times. It's time to manage our thinking.

The anti-fear epidemic*

What might the world be like if we were able to consciously over-ride unproductive fear patterns? What might happen in the world if we had less fear and more curiosity?

  • A significant reduction in conflicts caused by misunderstandings.
  • The flow rate and frequency of productive ideas will significantly increase because of the willingness to share novel connections made via previously unconnected thoughts.
  • Good ideas will be rapidly implemented, and bad ideas will be fixed or more rapidly discarded because we are able to have honest, curious, problem solving conversations with each other.
  • The long histories of conflict and multigenerational cycles of hate that make it hard for us to see positive in "the enemy" will be interrupted so that a new, more positive history emerges.
"THE lovely flowers MURDERER are in bloom again." In print, the threatening word is obvious. But if you saw that sentence on television and the word "murderer" appeared so quickly that you were not consciously aware of it, you would still feel a twinge of fear, as measured by brain electrodes. This according to a study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (via NewScientist, 5/21/2005). So what? This means that our brains process words (and, likely, other stimuli) of which we're not consciously aware, and to which we react instantaneously, unconsciously. Does this make it harder to choose your reaction? Yep. Especially if you're not paying attention to what you're doing, seeing, or feeling. This makes the challenge of being vigilant more difficult, and more important.

It's time to be inoculated with the anti-fear virus.

There is already a global pandemic. A pandemic of fear. We've become so used to it that we've forgotten that we don't have to be afraid.

It is possible to be more curious than fearful. It is possible for humans to thoughtfully distinguish between "danger" and simply "new." It is possible to create a new "normal" where curious questioning and thoughtful connecting are the habit of the land. And the inoculation is quick and painless. It's a simple decision.

Human beings define the abnormal as normal when that is what is most common.

A decision that crowds fear out of our consciousness and off of our fear receptors. We make it at the moment we stop looking for ways to make change easier and less fear-filled. When we just choose to change, and do so. Bang. You've accepted the anti-fear virus. Symptoms: Bravery, Action, Innovation.

Choose. To be vigilant for unproductive fear-based stories running around in your head, leaving muddy footprint that are hard to clean. Catch those twinges as soon as you notice them. Then replace fear-promoting mental stories with those that tell of the rewards of curiosity; the social status that is achieved as we mature ourselves into more emotionally intelligent beings. Remind yourself every hour of every day of the positive, productive and problem-solving world you are helping create. Be willing to be the one who starts it all by being the "Patient Zero" in the antifear epidemic. Start something great.

Closing Words from a Big Wheel

Finally, we leave you with the sage advice of Miss Frizzle, the wisest cartoon character we have ever known, and driver of the Magic School Bus (don't know who she is? Ask your favorite kid): "Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy!" Go ahead, don't be afraid be brave!

Action Steps:

  • Enhance your innovation intelligence by regularly asking the following creative question: In what ways am I limiting others' and my own greatness because of unnecessary fears?
  • Enhance your innovation intelligence by regularly making the following statement to yourself: I can choose to be afraid or to be curious. I choose to be curious. •

Next: How to Use Humor to Lighten Up

© 2006 Bob Eckert. All rights reserved.

Bob EckertBob Eckert is a Senior Founding Partner at New & Improved, LLC. His work focuses on developing innovative organizations and innovation leaders via training, coaching and facilitation. More »
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