Innovation and shame

What on earth is the connection between innovation and shame? I would never have previously put these two words together and made a natural connection.

However, having just read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown (for the second time in six months), the connection now feels compellingly obvious to me and worthy of sharing with others. Let me set the scene by providing a direct quote from the book¹, attributed to Peter Sheahan, the CEO of ChangeLabs™, a global consulting firm building and delivering large-scale behavioral change projects for clients such as Apple and IBM:

‘The secret killer of innovation is shame. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear of being wrong, of being belittled is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.’

 ‘If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams. This requires that first they are vulnerable themselves. This notion that the leader needs to be ‘in charge’ and to ‘know all the answers’ is both dated and destructive. Its impact on others is the sense that they know less, and that they are less than. A recipe for risk aversion if ever I have heard it. Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.’ (p.65)

It is worthwhile just sitting with that quote for a moment – it is rich in meaning and wisdom.  I am struck with how obvious the connection between innovation and shame is made and the clarity of the implications for leaders.

What is also painfully apparent is how relatively absent this connection is in the debate and discussion about innovation. Having worked in the broad field of organisation development over the past 25 years, I have come across much literature about ‘innovation’ as well as having worked within and with organisations that have grappled with ‘becoming more innovative’. Typically, the focus is on creating structures, systems, processes, training, behaviours and leadership that support innovation. In practical terms this includes such things as training people in innovation tools and techniques; establishing ‘ideas banks’, running ideation (idea creation) workshops; setting aside ‘innovation time’ for people to work on pet projects; rewarding and recognising innovation; having innovation as a value and embedding in performance management systems; and establishing collaborative work spaces.

There is a fair chance that you have experienced many of these initiatives in your own workplace (and have maybe viewed with some cynicism). These types of initiatives are not without merit, however without a work environment as described above by Peter Sheahan their success is likely to be limited. Indeed, if all you did was create such a work environment, then you’d go a long way to creating a culture of creativity and innovation without those interventions. Further, such a work environment would also support high performance in a range of areas – customer focus, discretionary effort, staff retention etc.

This is where we need to put leadership efforts first and foremost.

So before exploring the practical implications of this for leaders it is useful to have some understanding of what is meant by shame. To get a deeper understanding I highly recommend reading the wonderful Daring Greatly where you can immerse yourself in the research into this fascinating subject, however perhaps a couple of key quotes from Brene Brown provide a basic understanding:

‘Shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually hard-wired for connection, love and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.’ (p.68)

‘We can’t let ourselves be seen if we’re terrified by what people might think. Often ‘not being good at vulnerability’ means that we are damn good at shame.’ (p.61)

When our self-worth isn’t on the line, we are far more willing to be courageous and risk sharing our raw talents and gifts.’ (p.64)

These are deep and potentially confronting ideas that are not usually discussed in organisations, however they contain a very basic and practical message:

One of the key roles of leaders is to create an environment where people feel they belong and are fully accepted by their colleagues.

This may also be described as creating an environment of psychological safety people feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other – which has become a prominent theme in leadership development (see this Ted Talk on psychological safety by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson). So, what might a leader do to create a sense of connectedness and acceptance? Prior to experimenting with some actions, it might be appropriate to ‘call it out’ and educate and explore with colleagues the ‘why’ of going down this path – to help generate a shared commitment. Possible strategies or principles to follow might include:

  • As leader, go first! Admit your vulnerabilities and take some risks.
  • Provide real opportunities for people to get to know each other – their stories of challenges, failures and overcoming of adversity.
  • Seek feedback as a leader and coach team members to seek feedback as a growth opportunity. Acknowledge and own your own mistakes.
  • Encourage and practice active listening, making sure people are ‘fully present’ in all conversations. Seek first to understand.
  • Drive unconditional positive regard as a mindset amongst the team – work on the assumption that everyone has something of value to offer.
  • Embrace and celebrate diversity.
  • Drive out judgement – create a safe environment where judgmental behaviors are not tolerated – interruptions, eye rolling, blame etc

No doubt, creating such an environment will always be a work in progress – shame can be very personal and deep seated. However, if we can take self-worth off the table in the workplace, then the scope for creativity and innovation is huge:

                     I’ll be happy to make a suggestion, contribute a crazy idea or challenge the status quo if I know that I won’t be judged for it.

That is the connection between innovation and shame!

Hopefully this also whets your appetite to read Brene Brown’s book. I highly recommend it.

¹ Brown, B., 2012. Daring Greatly. Penguin Random House UK.