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In the Face of Fear, Organizational Leaders Need to Create Armies of Yes Men (and Women)!

06/17/2015 12:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

In times of disruption, we need to infuse our organizations with excitement about change and empower employees to become Yes Men (and Women) in order to take advantage of the opportunities for innovation and grow past difficulties. It turns out that is not as easy as it sounds.

When chaos exists in an organization or business climate, often the first response of business leaders is to follow their gut instinct to tighten their grip in an attempt to gain greater control over the situation. The result is a system-wide approach, which creates a culture of "no" - not only no to spending and hiring, but also no to new ideas and no to innovation. Such close-mindedness is inadvertently communicated to everyone from vendors and customers to job candidates and even competitors. The message of no becomes ingrained in the day-to-day operation of the company. It is this fear that stifles creativity at all levels of the organization and wastes a valuable opportunity for real change. Doors are closed, chances are squandered and the cycle of fear grows.

More important than just telling employees to make changes, leaders will need to lead their employees through the fear to the other side where we find innovative solutions. One major roadblock is that some managers believe that they are solely responsible for keeping the ship afloat, while their staff merely carries out their orders. The tendency is to fall back on traditional roles and solutions - whether they were successful in the past or not. Such an approach creates a hierarchy that is dictated by a corporate culture where ideas trickle from the top down, because those appear to be the only ones that anyone is willing to risk. Or worse, the response is doing what has been done in the past, as staff clings to what they believe are safe or surefire answers. A larger issue is that most people are drawn to the idea of innovation, with its seduction and promise of excitement, but are fearful of the changes it will bring.

A Cornell University study, "The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas" found that creative ideas are rarely given a chance because they are dismissed in favor of those that are practical and proven, tried and true. Additionally, the bias against creativity is so subtle that most people do not recognize creative ideas. The stress of a chaotic situation causes employees to often shut down and look toward leadership for direction. No one wants to make a mistake and novel approaches are seen as too big of a gamble for chaotic times.

The new paradigm dictates that we should view the challenges of a difficult economy as an opportunity to try divergent paths, to empower employees to venture down lesser-traveled roads, and that everyone is welcome to bring something to the table. We must find ways to encourage ideas from everyone in the organization and allow employees the freedom to find new solutions. That does not mean blanket approval for all ideas, it means fostering an atmosphere which encourages everyone to weigh in, so that creative solutions are given room to be considered, discussed and implemented regardless of their origins.

The message that employees should hear and pass along is "yes." Yes, we want to hear from you. Yes, your opinion matters. Yes, you are valued. This message should be repeated throughout the organization, not only to employees, but customers as well.

Steve Jobs introduced to Apple the concept that great ideas can come from anywhere, and to lead from the bottom up. He created an army of Yes Men. That is not saying that there wasn't a corporate structure - or that all of his employees had to agree with him. It was more of a process built upon the belief that hiring great people and giving them the freedom to innovate led to great results.

Higher education faces a challenge in this regard. Steeped in centuries of tradition, innovation has been slow, even with the introduction of technology in learning. Colleges and universities often focus on choices defined by past conflicts, viewing challenges as an either-or proposition, such as faculty versus administration or online learning as opposed to a classroom setting. Like corporate environments, new approaches can be viewed with trepidation and the sheer inertia of such large and established organizations make true change even more difficult.

Higher education in all its forms must begin to re-frame problems as opportunities for innovation, and learn to say "yes," extending value to the communities we serve in the process. Leadership must recognize that ideas can come from anywhere in the organization - and outside the organization. Our intellectual capital can become turbo-charged when we engage with the marketplace. An atmosphere where staff and faculty are empowered to explore, student input is sought, the business community and public sector become partners, creates a confluence of ideas that spark innovation. In this way, our colleges and universities will nurture and sustain a culture of yes.