Four Ways To Stop Negativity Bias From Killing Innovation

An innate fear of failure could be stunting your company's creative spark but with a systematic, solution-oriented process, you can overcome it.

Consider this statistic: 70 percent of senior executives view innovation as one of the most essential drivers of business growth, but almost as many say they don’t have the confidence to foster it in their own organizations.

As senior leaders, it seems we’re as evangelical as we are terrified when it comes to innovation. Why is this? As a veteran innovation strategist to Fortune 500 companies like Kellogg’s, Pfizer, Bank of America and Georgia-Pacific, I’ve found the biggest obstacle to behavior change is simple: we don’t like to fail.

We all have a cognitive bias called the negativity bias, which essentially means that we’re predisposed to avoid negative outcomes, even more so than we are to pursue positive ones. As a result, our minds hone in on the potential negatives of every single idea with laser precision.

The higher up the corporate ladder we climb, the more responsibility and accountability we assume, and the more intense this bias can become. I believe it’s this fear that keeps senior leaders conflicted between creativity and institutional barriers. In short, it’s much safer to do what we’ve always done.

In my experience, innovation happens when we stop shying away from the negatives and develop a culture of proactive, creative problem-solving. This goes beyond simply calling a brainstorming session. Instead, I advise you to work with your teams to break down a problem or need, understand it, generate ideas and then evaluate what works. With this systematic, solution-oriented process, you can overcome their “innovation aversion”.

Below are four ways to improve problem-solving and boost innovation.

1. Understand

First, understand how you’re incentivizing your team. Employees are often scared to innovate because they feel they’ll be judged harshly in the event of a failure. We’re essentially incentivizing them to maintain the status quo, rather than taking risks and venturing into new territory.

Take the pressure off by changing the criteria on which their performance is assessed. Reward innovation and creative thinking in its own right, even when the outcomes aren’t necessarily brilliant.

2. Empower

Junior employees often approach problems from an entirely different perspective, generating wonderfully creative solutions as a result. However, when they have to pass every single thought and decision up and down the chain of command, their ideas lose momentum.

Empower your team to work independently. Let them take ownership of problems and ideas and provide them with the tools and information they need to make their own decisions. Give them the responsibility and the authority to create, test, iterate and reach conclusions by themselves. When you do this, your team will come forward with ideas that are already optimized and ready to succeed.

3. Persuade

Innovation has to come from the top, but all too often there’s a culture of resistance among senior leadership. We fall back on the tried and tested, leaving no room to explore new and potentially better ideas.

Changing our instinctive reaction to new ideas takes much practice and reinforcement. Instead, persuade your senior managers to reframe their thoughts and behaviors around innovation. Rather than reflexively squashing anything “different” or “risky,” train them to actively welcome and nurture new ideas. When they prioritize innovation in this way, it permits the rest of the organization to shift and accommodate new ways of thinking.

4. Trust

It’s tempting to jump in and solve problems for your team. This is usually well-intentioned, but it trains your employees to stop trying and simply wait for your instruction, instead of encouraging them to flex their own problem-solving muscles. Take a step back, trust that your team will achieve results, and focus on clearing obstacles out of their path.

As a junior level brand manager for Gatorade, I was tasked with researching a new beverage that showed promise as a children’s drink. However, this market was in direct conflict with Gatorade’s existing audience of men and elite athletes. The product was considered low-priority, but I continued to work on it regardless. When a competitor’s product caught the attention of the leadership team, my product was already a strong, well-developed contender. The CEO gave me the authority to pull in different departments and have them prioritize the new product. The company was motivated to innovate, coming up with new systems and processes in order to accommodate the new product.

The result? The drink beat the competitor to market and became the biggest line extension Gatorade had ever launched at that time.

It takes time and commitment to transform a company culture from risk-averse to innovation-driven. However, when innovation and creative problem-solving become a priority from the top down, the entire organization thrives.

Susan Robertson
Susan Robertson is a world-renowned innovation expert, with over 20 years of practical, hands-on leadership in the field. She works with Fortune 500 companies such as Deloitte, Kashi, Clorox, Bank of America, and Georgia Pacific to sharpen their strategic creativity and produce real, tangible results. She is also an instructor on innovation and applied creativity at Harvard’s Professional Development Program.