Dr Dzingai Katsamba: Overcoming The Fear Factor

Dr Dzingai Katsamba, Dean: Innovation and Technology, reflects on overcoming the fear factor and views such as a human barrier to innovation…


With all the pandemics, economic hardships and the rapid changes in technological growth and implementation – concerns about failure, criticism, and career impact have been holding back many people from embracing innovation. Thus, the discussions below outlines some of the ways to create a culture that accounts for the human side of innovation.


There is a story that I read about Alex Honnold. The story says that about five years ago, Alex Honnold ascended and braved the sheer face of the 3,000-foot El Capitan escarpment alone and with no ropes, and he was the only known person to have achieved such a great feat. Great skill and discipline were key to Honnold, but he is also endowed with a special brain. It was proven through an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan that his brain does not register fear.

Innovation in itself is not a sudden death, but it comes with a lot of anxiety. It is more ambiguous than any other business activity, requiring bold bets in the face of uncertain outcomes and a willingness to persevere despite setbacks, criticism, and self-doubt. That is the reason why most teams, in moments of honest self-reflection, will agree that fear can paralyse innovation. Research has also showed that 85 percent of executives that were recently polled by Mckinsey, agree that fear holds back innovation efforts often or always in their respective organisations. The research concluded that average or below-average innovators are three times more likely than innovation leaders to report this phenomenon. The most concerning factor is that nine out of ten organisations are doing nothing to allay these fears. In essence, they are counting on having Alex Honnolds among them to spearhead initiatives that others dare not attempt. Do you perhaps have such minds in your team?

In as much as innovation is a risky business, it remains a critical important driver of organisational growth. Leading innovators not only recognise the role that fear plays but also invest in building corporate cultures that pair the success factors necessary for triumph with a thoughtful design of employees’ emotional journey. It is critical to understand what a successful innovation culture entail. The culture and employee experience of innovation correlate highly with an organisation’s overall success at innovating. However, fear is a constant for almost all practitioners. There are big disparities in the nature and intensity of that fear, as well as in how companies temper its negative impact.


What are we afraid of?

Fear is known to be a complex and personal topic. What intimidates or paralyses some can motivate others to act boldly. If looked in aggregate, however, there are three fears that hold back corporate innovation more than others: fear of criticism, fear of uncertainty, and fear of negative impact on one’s career. Individuals working as average or below-average innovators are two to four times more likely than those working as leading innovators to cite these fears as barriers to innovation.

In most cases, the fear of career impact emerges as the biggest differentiator between those who work at top innovation companies and others. Such worries have predictable consequences. When we believe our decisions can put our advancement or compensation at risk, loss aversion takes the steering wheel and drives us to hedge our bets. This results in employees being reluctant to fully invest (or gamble) their careers on innovation, let alone on a single innovation project.

The second-biggest human barrier to innovation is difficulty in dealing with uncertainty and loss of control. Such fears trigger the ambiguity effect, a cognitive bias that leads us to avoid options with uncertain outcomes. Management executives seeking more control over outcomes often prioritise incremental innovations they perceive as less risky or push teams for assurances that their projects will pay off, producing the counterproductive result of less experimentation, less-ambitious ideas, and less creativity. To allay their fear of uncertainty, some leaders treat past market dynamics as predictors of future performance – a risky assumption, particularly in dynamic times like the current pandemic era.

Fear of criticism is the third big hurdle to innovation and is witnessed in many organisations. Group conformity and tribalism have been seen to be basic survival instincts, but these tendencies can imperil companies’ innovation success. Industry norms may shape employees’ sense of what is possible, discouraging them from bringing forward ideas that sharply break with convention. When ideas do materialise, people water them down to fit those norms. This conformity bias leads us to follow the crowd, even if it is to our organisation’s detriment.

For innovation to be planted, nurtured and harvested, fear has to be managed if not eradicated. The article has discussed the various fears as they relate to innovation and how to minimise the impact of fear. From an innovation point of view the acronym F.E.A.R (False Evidence Appearing Real) has been coined and serves as a reminder that innovative minds and fearful minds cannot be entertained at the same time.