CX Insights

How Fear and Shame Impact Innovation

Barriers to Innovation - Usabilla
5 min read

Companies all around the world are striving to create a culture of creativity and disruptive innovation. As a manager or CEO, what are you doing to cultivate this? What techniques do you use to motivate your team and encourage them to take their work and ideas to the next level?

Employee engagement firm TINYpulse conducted a survey last year and asked over 200,000 employees the question:

What motivates you to excel and go the extra mile at your organization?

Employees could choose from 10 answers. These were the top 6 results:

  1. Camaraderie, peer motivation (20%)
  2. Intrinsic desire to a good job (17%)
  3. Feeling encouraged and recognized (13%)
  4. Having a real impact (10%)
  5. Growing professionally (8%)
  6. Meeting client/customer needs (8%)

While these are all valid points that managers should definitely focus on, there is also another underlying element that is often not addressed: that of fear and shame.

How shame impacts innovation and ways to combat it

Shame innovation

How many times have you had a fantastic idea, but just decided to keep it to yourself due to fear? Fear of how your team would embrace your idea and if they would find it as fantastic as you do. Also, have you had an idea to do something but did not go along with it because it was “safer” to stay in your comfort zone and focus on what you know you do well.

According to Kevin Surace, CEO of Appvance, creator of a DevOps QA platform, this is the most significant barrier to creativity and innovation:

“I don’t know if it has a name, but honestly, it’s the fear of introducing an idea and being ridiculed, laughed at, and belittled. If you’re willing to subject yourself to that experience, and if you survive it, then it becomes the fear of failure and the fear of being wrong. People believe they’re only as good as their ideas and that their ideas can’t seem too ‘out there’ and they can’t ‘not know’ everything. The problem is that innovative ideas often sound crazy and failure and learning are part of revolution. Evolution and incremental change is important and we need it, but we’re desperate for real revolution and that requires a different type of courage and creativity.”

So many of us are scared and this fear stems from shame. But any organization that truly wants to encourage innovation has to build a shame-resilient culture. How do you know that shame manifests in your company or team? Take a look at the leaders: do they use intimidation techniques, bullying, favoritism or are there reward systems in place that intentionally humiliate people and cultivate the feeling of “not being enough”?

This type of environment will have a detrimental impact not only on innovation but on the general performance of the team.

Vulnerability researcher Brene Brown, in her  book “Daring Greatly” recommends the following four strategies for building shame-resilient organizations:

  1. Leaders should make a conscious effort to be vulnerable and facilitate honest conversations about shame
  2. Identify where shame might be functioning in the organization and how it might be affecting the way we engage with our team
  3. Normalizing situations. What are common struggles? How have other people dealt with them? Making team members not feel alone in the challenges and problems they are facing.
  4. Teach everyone within the organization how to give and receive feedback in a way that fosters growth and engagement.

The Engaged Feedback Checklist – One way to combat shame

Engagement Checklist - Usabilla

Point 4 of the strategies above, is not an easy task and should not be taken lightly. Giving feedback to team members in a constructive and beneficial way, requires high levels of awareness and empathy. In Chapter 6 in the book Daring Greatly, Brown offers an “Engaged Feedback Checklist.”

According to her, only when you have covered the below points, are you ready to give feedback in a mutually beneficial way that combats both shame and fear:

I know I’m ready to give feedback when:

  • I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you;
  • I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you);
  • I’m ready to listen, ask questions and accept that I may not fully understand the issue;
  • I want to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes;
  • I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges;
  • I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you;
  • I’m willing to own my part;
  • I can genuinely thank you for your efforts rather than criticize you for your failings;
  • I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to growth and opportunity;
  • I can model the vulnerability and openness that I can expect from you.


The success of any product or organization depends on the motivation, performance and effort of the team involved. Do you feel that your team members are performing to the maximum and feel comfortable in expressing their ideas? Holding back our ideas due to what people might think is something we can all relate to. Being able to express these ideas, requires more than anything else, a leader that will make us feel “enough” and allow us to flourish in being vulnerable.

Create this safe environment, firstly by showing your vulnerability as a leader. You will be amazed at the true potential of the people around you, once judgement, shame and fear are out of the equation.


Cassandra Michael
Head of Marketing @ Usabilla