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How Human Nature Blocks Innovation

Research provides valuable insights on why innovation and change challenge many people. This is especially the case with major changes or Disruptive (H3 / P3) Innovation that involve new – concepts, markets, products, business models, technology, etc.

The reasons for this pertain to how we deal with Ambiguity , Power Dynamics , and Social Threat as follows –

1. Ambiguity

Ambiguity comes into play when people don’t know what to make of a situation or if what they saw or experienced is something worth addressing – and if so, whether they should address it. In conjunction with this, people are often silent because they are unsure of an appropriate response or observe others are silent. This occurs in the face of uncertainty, what something new means, changing expectations, not knowing what others or the Boss wants, etc. This phenomenon in which people witness a situation and don’t do or say anything about it – is called the bystander effect.

Remarkably, the more people who witness these situations lowers the chance that anyone will engage or challenge. This is because bystanders often struggle to know when and if to relate or speak up. Further, when they look around and observe others not doing anything, they typically assume there isn’t an issue or that someone else will handle it.

Researchers call this ‘ diffusion of responsibility ’. The term applies when responsibility to innovate or challenge is not definitively assigned to one person, but instead is shared among many people. Because of this, it isn’t clear who is responsible for stepping in or speaking up to address the issue or to explore the options or considerations to move forward. The outcome of ambiguity causing diffusion of responsibility tends to be that no one does anything. This maintains the status quo – which many people are good with !

Based on these insights, it is easy to see how ambiguity blocks progress to Innovate for Impact.

2. Power Dynamics

Since Innovating for Impact means taking risks, researchers have observed that receivers of, and observers to, questionable decisions or behaviors often downplay them for a range of reasons related to power, or the lack thereof. For example, if a person asks questions or offers insights that people are uncomfortable with or is foreign to the group – they can be viewed as being different, creating an awkward situation, be labeled a troublemaker or complainer, etc. This can cause fear since the potential to upset people or the power dynamics of the organization. On the other end of the spectrum, a person might experience feelings of futility – where they believe that if they speak up, it will not make a difference or others will not listen to them. Another concern is they may be afraid of damaging a relationship with a more powerful colleague, where trust, respect, or support will be lost. And – perhaps most important – they might fear retaliation, which could result in less desirable job assignments, being passed over for promotion, or even job loss.

Organizations that struggle with innovation meaningfully improving outcomes on an ongoing basis tend to perpetuate a culture of conformity, silence or fear by discouraging or paying lip service to effecting real change, challenging doctrine, presenting a different view or perspective, exploring new opportunities or new concepts, etc. This is reinforced by people believing it is either dangerous or futile to challenge or go outside of established processes or traditional expectations / experiences. Interestingly, people are frequently unaware this is happening because of personal reservations, lack of interest in developing a different mindset or perspective, not knowing what they don’t know, corporate culture, etc. An example of this is depicted in the movie The Stepford Wives.

Research on the consequences of structured workplaces and institutional thinking finds that the most common roadblock to innovation or speaking up by those in low power positions is the hierarchical environment of the organization. For example, recordings from cockpits illustrate how captains ignore corrective suggestions from co-pilots (who are lower in the hierarchy with less power). Add gender to the mix and things becomes more complex. For example, one study found that in a hospital operating room, that respiratory therapists (23 women and six men) spoke up to the female lead physicians more frequently than they did the male lead physicians. Moreover, they spoke up in a more confident and direct manner to her !

From these insights and many other examples, it is clear power dynamics are frequently a huge blocker to effecting real change and meaningfully increasing the rewards from innovation.

3. Social Threat

Why is disruptive innovation so threatening ? The reason is that our brains perceive and respond to social threats and rewards similar to how we process physical pain. Humans are social creatures, and the threat created in a new situation creates a perceived risk to established relationships and behavior as well as group membership. Under threat, the prefrontal cortex – the area for executive functioning that facilitates planning, rationalizing, decision-making and problem-solving can experience reduced capacity because the limbic system is processing the threat. The limbic system includes areas of the brain believed to participate in processing our emotional responses and how we handle uncertainties. Experiencing a threat heightens momentary alertness but decreases our ability to see issues clearly, collaborate well with others, think analytically, etc.

An example of a taxed prefrontal cortex is a person not able to think of the words they want to say, or seek a safe environment – to avoid a challenging situation. The very thought of discussing new things, challenging doctrine, speaking up, etc. can induce a threat state and make it difficult to utilize the prefrontal cortex.

To mitigate a “ Social Threat “ be cognizant of the need to balance your IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and EQ (Emotional Quotient) for better outcomes. To do so requires living through many experiences, continuous learning, asking many questions to fast acquiring knowledge, realizing the rewards of good decision making and enduring consequences of poor decision making, having an open and exploring mindset, etc. Because many people don’t have these attributes, successfully dealing with a perceived Social Threat is a huge challenge for them. And because they are unaware their emotions are overriding logic, they don’t see the issue either ! This is why Social Threat is the silent killer of innovation or makes innovation riskier than it already is !


To get past the blockers to innovation it’s important to recognize how we’re wired and that many people don’t have the necessary talent, ambition, knowledge, awareness, inclination, capabilities, risk tolerance, etc. to innovate for impact.

However, this is not stopping people from believing they are changing and that “ we can do this “ ! While there frequently is a basis for this opinion, change is typically not to a degree needed to have the mindset, perspective and expanded comfort zones required to meaningfully increase the rewards from innovation by –

A. having very strong look ahead skills and professional competencies
B. anticipating and meeting rising and more demanding Customer expectations
C. providing clearly superior new products and services
D. making good on new opportunities or vision
E. successfully entering a new market
F. being accomplished at monetizing value creation
G. evolving the business model
H. being more sophisticated at managing risk
I. creating a more entrepreneurial organization
J. etc.

With this and that innovation is very multi-dimensional, is why a “ Brain Trust “ is needed – if the goal is for innovation to significantly improve outcomes.

The more effective Brain Trusts include people having different and complimenting competencies who are accomplished in their field, want to make a difference, and are very success oriented.

If interested in discussing this material or exploring the options to innovate for impact, please send a note to the email below.


Sept 16, 2020                 by NLI / CAIL                 Innovation commentary