Why Fear Kills Your Creativity
June 3, 2015

Why Fear Kills Your Creativity

by Brian de Haaff

I was blown away by the response of Sunday’s article, "Why Cruel Leaders Get All the Love.” More than 100,000 readers took time to read the post, and more than 250 left me their comments.

It seems like most people have experienced cruel leaders who seem to get undeserved adoration. In the post, I explained that under the surface, their employees really despise them, and the love they show is just a cover for their true feelings.

One reader rightly pointed out that there is a difference between a challenging boss and a sadistic one.

There is a fine line between a cruel boss versus a demanding boss. I would never give the world to a cruel boss, but a demanding one I would. A demanding boss forces you to grow, and I love a challenge!

That is true — you can grow when you have a demanding boss. But a boss who uses fear to motivate will end up with less than desirable results. These two readers agreed.

If you ‘motivate’ by fear, in the end, people will usually end up doing the minimum necessary to comply, as doing anything innovative is too dangerous.
This is the power of motivation…well, negative motivation. Negative motivation (fear) helps increase productivity to a limited extent. But it kills the potential of an organization to grow in capacity and competence.

These thoughtful responses got me thinking about the power of fear, and how it can really do a number on you.

When you are genuinely frightened, your heart starts to beat wildly. You feel the panic rising and your stomach churning. You feel paralyzed and you cannot focus on anything else. When you feel that kind of fear in your workplace, you have no desire to brainstorm new ideas. You simply cannot be creative when you are terrified.

When fear takes over, it becomes the biggest obstacle to creativity and can stunt a person’s and company’s growth.

Here is how you can tell if fear is crushing your creativity:

No sparks Where there is a free exchange of opposing views, great ideas can flourish. But if you are afraid to speak up and suggest a different direction, you will end up with the same stale ideas. Healthy companies allow room for discussion and even disagreement. They are not afraid of challenging or disruptive ideas — in fact, they welcome them.

Lack of motivation Once you spend all your energy trying not to step out of line, the last thing you want to do is contribute new ideas. What is the point? Your contribution will just get shot down anyways. However, when a company embraces creative thought, employees can use their energy toward bringing their ideas to light.

New ideas are threats When fear is allowed to rule, new employees quickly discover how to end up on the boss’s bad side — just share a new idea. Everyone else knows that new ideas are dangerous. Maintaining the status quo is the safest way to survive and stay under the radar. Great companies, on the other hand, do not perceive ideas as threats — they see them as opportunities.

Great companies get it — that the flow of ideas is necessary to creativity and growth. Work should be a place where you can be your awesome best every day.

Fear is a natural instinct that protects us from danger. But the workplace should not feel like a dangerous place. If it does, that is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong.

Has your creativity been hurt by fear?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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