3 Ways to Stop Unconscious Fear From Blocking Innovation at Your Organization

Jennifer Juo

HR and L&D Insights Editor at Udemy for Business

April 5, 2017

How do you foster employees who embrace change instead of resist it? If you’ve tried to propose a new way of doing things at your company, you know that the status quo and inertia are hefty obstacles to overcome. Change isn’t often easy to implement. So how do you create an organization that’s open to change and ready to innovate?

When trying to shape a more dynamic environment at work, organizations often focus on structure and systems but overlook another key ingredient to change—creating a “change mindset” in your managers and individual employees.

Laura Goodrich, a leader in global workforce innovation and Udemy for Business instructor, shares how to ensure your individual employees, leaders, and organizations are poised for change. Based on over 25 years of experience working with people and organizations to create positive change, Goodrich outlines 3 ways to create a change mindset in your organization.

Step 1. Recognize and get rid of unconscious fear

When working with companies in the midst of dynamic change, Goodrich discovered many employees exhibited unconscious fear in what they didn’t want to happen, e.g. they were afraid of missing a deadline, going over budget, or making a mistake. This mindset has cascading negative effects on innovation.

Why? Fear has a negative impact on performance. According to research highlighted by Goodrich, fear causes the release of a hormone known as cortisol that in the past enabled humans to flee from their enemies. But today, we aren’t running from predators. According to a Harvard Business School study of employees at a healthcare organization, managers who led from a point of fear and punished failure or mistakes had less innovation and experimentation on their teams. Too much fear and stress can cause cortisol to flood the brain and actually inhibit the part of your brain that thinks clearly, is creative, and solves problems. Not something you want in your organization!

Focusing on fear is a natural human tendency that’s been going on for ages. It’s part social conditioning (our mothers warned us “don’t make a mistake”) and it’s part human psychology. According to Goodrich, 70% of our thoughts are unconsciously focused on what we fear and don’t want to happen. This becomes our focus so much that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. So creating awareness and talking about it is the first important step to changing it.

Step 2: Have every employee create an “I want statement”

Goodrich recommends reprogramming your brain with the daily mantra of “Focus on what I want. Control what I can.” For example, as an individual, before a big presentation at an important meeting, visualize successfully delivering the presentation rather than worrying about making mistakes.

As a manager, don’t lead from a point of fear. It’s critical that this positive change mindset begins with the manager. Avoid motivating your employees through words like, “don’t miss this deadline” or “don’t go over budget.” Focus instead on the positive outcomes you and your team want to achieve. So for example, encourage your employees to stay within budget by suggesting “create a realistic budget for your project” or “align your expenditures to meet your goals.” Have you and your team each create “I want” statements with goals they would like to accomplish. Create your plan to lead this positive way of thinking and recognize that change is not an event, but a process.

Step 3: Engage your ambassadors of change

Finally, you can’t do this alone. People who see the need for change and want to be part of the process are your allies. These “ambassadors” exhibit the behavior you want everyone to share and are natural advocates for change. They might make up 20% of your organization. The other 50% are what Goodrich calls the “back seat sitters” who are generally neutral and the final 30% are the “detractors” who are usually resistant.

Goodrich recommends leveraging “the power of 70%” and focusing on the ambassadors and the back seat sitters. She suggests implementing a plan to get the ambassadors to engage the back seat sitters. For example, ambassadors could plan to have several conversations per week with these more neutral team members regarding the new proposed change and why it’s important.

They can also organize lunch & learns and round table discussions to share success stories about teams or individuals that successfully implemented the proposed change and how it resulted in increased performance or revenue. Once you convert these back seat sitters and reach critical mass, your organization will have successfully built a self-sustaining change mindset.

These are just a few steps to help ensure your organization is set up for change and innovation. For the entire toolkit on how to create a change mindset at your organization, see Laura Goodrich’s course on Udemy for Business “Creating a Change Mindset With Seeing Red Cars (for Leaders)” or for more information, go to Laura Goodrich’s website.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

2020 Workplace Learning Trends Report: The Skills of the Future thumbnail


Discover the latest trending tech & soft skills, top 10 skills by industry & role, and how organizations are preparing their workforce for the future.

More from Culture Topic


Key Takeaways from Udemy’s 2018 Employee Experience Report

Low unemployment combined with a persistent skills gap has led to a competitive hiring environment, where the most sought-after talent...


5 Situations When Your Organization May Need Change Management

Over 70 percent of change management efforts fail, according to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. This is due...


How Biased Feedback Hurts Employee Growth—And How to Fix It

In today’s knowledge economy, it’s the people who drive the success of a company. Everything centers around the creativity and...