Here’s Why Emotions Are The Secret Sauce Of Innovation

Batten Institute University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Forbes

Many business leaders tell me that one of their top priorities is increasing the quality and speed of their organizational innovation. Faster and better is now being applied to innovation just as it has been applied for decades to operational excellence. This need is being driven by faster paces of change, more complexity, connectivity, transparency, reduced barriers to entry and by exponentially advancing technology.

Artificial intelligence systems, deep learning, smart robots, the Internet of Things, nanotechnology, virtual and augmented reality will transform every business function. Operational excellence will be technology-based and, in many industries, commoditized. That would leave innovation as the key strategic value creation differentiator.

When I ask those business leaders what they’re doing to create more and better innovation, they usually answer in two ways: they are hiring better people and/or they are putting in place better processes. When I ask them what they’re doing to emotionally enable more innovation in their organizations, they usually look at me like I’m crazy or respond “what do you mean?”

Innovation is Emotional

Innovation is not just a cognitive process. It’s emotional. It requires doing something new or novel, and that can be scary because it requires the courage to enter the unknown and it involves learning from experimental failures. Many of us learned as children that success comes from making the fewest mistakes. We learned to avoid making mistakes and looking stupid. We also developed emotional defensives to protect our views of ourselves—to protect our ego. Protecting our ego and fear are the two big emotional inhibitors of innovation.

How do we begin to see new things that others don’t see? As importantly, how do we perceive reality more accurately—see what we do not usually see? How do we have the courage to explore the unknown? How do we create something new? We have to overcome our fears of failure in order to iteratively learn. We have to overcome our self-centered views of the world so we can perceive the world as it is not as we believe it is. We must be more open-minded and less emotionally defensive when our views are challenged by others or by new facts. We must reflectively listen in a nonjudgmental manner. And to do all of that, we absolutely have to manage our emotions and be emotionally intelligent about our and others’ emotions since innovation is a team sport.

Leading research by cognitive, social, and positive psychologists including Barbara Fredrickson and Alice Isen has produced strong evidence that positive emotions enable and enhance cognitive processing, innovative thinking, creativity and lead to better judgments and decision making. Research has also shown that negative emotions—especially fear and anxiety—have the opposite effect. Fears and anxiety in the workplace can take many forms, including fears of looking bad, speaking up, making mistakes, losing your job, or not being liked. All of us are insecure and fearful to a certain extent and in certain situations. We want to be liked. We want to be accepted by the team. We want to fit in.

Organizations must confront these emotional enablers and inhibitors through leadership role modeling, culture, human development and by implementing research-based processes that individuals can use to manage their ego and emotions. Organizations must design their work environments to reduce fears, insecurities, and other negative emotions. One important component is to create an environment of Psychology Safety.

Psychological Safety

Renowned humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow stated, that a person “reaches out to the environment in wonder and interest, and expresses whatever skills he has, to the extent that he is not crippled by fear, to the extent that he feels safe enough to dare.”

That’s what Psychological Safety is all about. Without overcoming fear and having courage, people won’t fully embrace the hard parts of innovating: giving and receiving of constructive feedback; asking and being asked the hard questions; being non-defensive, open-minded, and intellectually curious; having the courage to challenge the status quo and disagree with a higher ranking person; and having the courage to try new things and fail. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson has conducted some of the best research on Psychological Safety and found that it’s an essential element of organizational and individual learning.

To feel psychologically safe is to feel safe from retribution, which could be social ostracism, being passed over for good assignments, having bonuses or raises reduced, or even being transferred out of the team or fired for raising difficult issues or challenging the status quo. Psychologically safe environments are humanistic people-centric environments with candor, permission to speak freely, and permission to make learning mistakes (within financial risk parameters), and they offer all employees a voice by devaluing elitism, hierarchy, and rank (other than with respect to compensation).

A Google company analyst recently published a powerful example of Psychological Safety research in a 2015 Google blog post entitled, “The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team.”  Like all good researchers the team at Google had a hypothesis. They believed that the right mix of individual traits and skills was the most important aspect of a great team; however, because they were thinking like scientists and being open-minded and willing to follow the truth wherever it took them, they found that their hypothesis was wrong. Instead, they discovered that how team members interact was much more important. Moreover, the key factor regarding team effectiveness by a material margin was Psychological Safety—whether team members felt safe taking risks and being vulnerable in front of teammates. And it turns out that employees who work on teams that have Psychological Safety are more likely to stay at Google and are more effective and productive.

Innovation happens best when we reduce our fears and ego defensiveness thereby freeing our minds to imagine, create, connect, and explore the new and unknown with others in a non-competitive way. That happens best when people feel psychologically safe and trust each other. It is all about emotions.


This article was written by Batten Institute University of Virginia Darden School of Business from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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