How Leaders Kill Innovation: And 4 Keys to Overcoming Them

April 21, 2014

leading innovation

Of all the obstacles that can get in the way of innovation and creativity, more often than not, the main culprit is the leader. They don’t intentionally mean to do it. After all, for any organization to be successful, it has to be innovative. This is one of the great lessons of business that has withstood the test of time.

One of the keys to the success of any organization is the ability of its people to openly express their ideas. It is essential to the ability of the business to be competitive and is at the core of how employees take true ownership. Unfortunately, leaders often have tendencies that can get in the way of their people feeling free to act imaginatively and express their ideas. Tendencies that have negative effects and can have a long lasting impact on an organization’s culture, keeping it from leveraging its most important asset: the creative and critical thinking of its employees.

What are some of the leadership behaviors that get in the way? The one that most often gets in the way is a leader’s inability to listen well. When leaders don’t pay attention and show value to others, it quickly gets in the way of others wanting to engage and share their ideas. Not only will this tendency affect the everyday level of openness of employees, it will also inhibit the informal dialogue required for meetings to be more effectively used for creative and critical thinking required to solve problems.

Leaders often like to take ownership of an idea and make it their own. Not only can employees feel criticized by this, it also gets in the way of them having a sense of responsibility. This inhibits their emotional engagement keeping them from feeling challenged to be even more creative.  We often hear employees saying that for any creative notion to move forward, they have to manipulate the leader to believe it was their idea. Needless to say, when employees can’t get recognition for their contribution, it lessens motivation.

Challenging others to think critically often results in a leader’s emphasis on the testing and questioning of new ideas. Unfortunately, there is a thin line between someone perceiving a leader’s inquiry as helpful or experiencing it as criticism. When it comes to challenging employees to think more critically, I have come across a great number of situations in which people feel that their ideas are never good enough or that they are not living up to a leader’s expectations. Much like constructive criticism, it is often more about the recipient’s experience than the intention of the leader giving it.

All too often leaders fail to engage others in thinking creatively about what the organization is trying to achieve. Clearly aligning creative and critical thinking to elements of success help to motivate others and helps them to experience personal contribution. Despite the recognition that employees are often disengaged as a result of not fully understanding the vision and strategy of the organization, leaders still fail to focus enough attention on communicating these key elements to success.

Here are four actions leaders can immediately take to change their behaviors and better leverage the creativity of others:

  1. Focusing on the improvement of their listening skills including the ability to inquire and invite openness, and not using questions to deliver criticism;
  2. Developing their ability to let go, not over-control, and overcome the need to take credit or unnecessary ownership;
  3. Creating context and focusing creativity as an aspect of alignment to the organization’s vision, strategy and goals; and,
  4. Better use of informal meetings as the means to problem-solve and engage in open thinking.

Lastly, it is important that leaders recognize and value their role in influencing and creating cultures of innovation and strive to become better coaches of creativity. This requires leaders to listen to others. Employees need to feel listened to, constructively challenged, and free to let their imaginations surface. Remember: give credit and recognition to those that deserve it.

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Check out Edgar Papke’s book: TRUE ALIGNMENT: Linking Company Culture with Customer Needs for Extraordinary Results (AMACOM).

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About The Author

Edgar Papke is a globally recognized thought leader and expert in leadership development and organizational alignment. He is the author of TRUE ALIGNMENT: Linking Company Culture with Customer Needs for Extraordinary Results (AMACOM Books, 2013) and is a sought after CEO and executive coach, organizational alignment consultant, and keynote speaker. His clients include CEOs and executives of small regional and large multi-national and Fortune 500 organizations. Mr. Papke has contributed to the development of leaders and executive teams throughout the world. He teaches workshops and retreats for CEOs and their teams, focusing their efforts on creating the sustained change required to build and successfully lead aligned organizations. He has received wide recognition for his development of organizational development programs and teaches consultants, coaches, and leadership development professionals on a global basis. As an award-winning speaker and facilitator, Edgar is widely recognized for his authentic style and innovative approaches to leadership, organizational culture, and the creative management of change and conflict in complex business environments. Over the past twenty years, as a speaker, trainer and facilitator, he has delivered over 2,000 keynote speeches, presentations, and workshops. In 2006, he was recognized as International Speaker of the Year by Vistage International, U.K. Vistage is the leading membership organization for Chief Executives with over 17,000 members worldwide.

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