“While fear is certainly a powerful motivator, it’s critical to have an empowering outlet for such energy.” — Misti Burmeister

Are your employees excited about the future, or are they scared of the uncertainty? Do they collaborate well, or are they too busy competing for their jobs to make headway together?

In companies or industries where the future is particularly uncertain, leaders with a clear, compelling vision are critical. Innovation and collaboration are born out of passion and vision. Fear breeds mistrust, hoarding, and dodging responsibility. It also distracts us from serving customers – both internal (employees) and external.

Case in point: Excited for the opportunity to speak to a group of leaders from a top-notch university, I dove into research on higher education. I also surveyed my audience about their greatest fears and concerns.

The research is clear – education is going through a major transformation, and most colleges have not yet adjusted for the new world of learning. So it wasn’t surprising that my audience survey revealed the educators’ greatest challenge is “fear of competition.” Not wanting to lose their jobs, competition has fueled the culture at this school (and probably many others).

The day after my speech, I shared what I’d learned with the university’s president. “Your staff members are afraid for their jobs,” I told him, thinking this might alarm him.

“Good,” he said. “I want them to be afraid. Fear necessitates action.”

“Fear is one way to motivate, I suppose.”

“It’s the only way,” he demanded. “They won’t get into action if they don’t see a strong reason for it.”

His perspective is not unique. In fact, this line of thinking explains why most marketing is aimed at motivating away from loss, rather than toward gain.

But here’s the thing: Like many industries, education is changing rapidly, and innovation is critical. But is innovation possible in the face of such self-doubt, lack of collaboration, and fear of failure? How can people think big, much less share ideas, when they’re wasting precious energy being afraid?

What if these educators felt safe to put all their energy into innovating and collaborating?

My guess is they’d be much more likely to find ways the organization could not only succeed in an ever-changing environment, but excel and set new standards for higher learning. They’d have stronger buy-in, brilliant ideas, and more value to offer students.

What’s necessary to create this shift away from fear and towards innovation? Brene Brown, renowned researcher, says it best: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

What does that mean in this context?

Leaders who want to create collaborative, innovative environments must stop using fear to motivate. Instead, they must open up the table for honest discussions, reveal their own fears, envision an even better future, and share it consistently.

You don’t need to know exactly where your industry is headed to create direction for your team. What you need is a willingness to not know, to share your uncertainties and create environments where others want to contribute.

While fear is certainly a powerful motivator, it’s critical to have an empowering outlet for such energy. Otherwise, it becomes inwardly-focused, and self-doubt, envy, and frustration creep in.

Join the Conversation: What strategies do you use to encourage collaboration and innovation for your team?


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Misti Burmeister, best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations and Hidden Heroes

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