Leading Employees Toward Innovation

Jan 24, 2019

By Donna J. Bear

Innovation often brings to mind visions of white-coated laboratory technicians peering into microscopes or bespectacled engineers poring over design specs. But it might be more appropriate to visualize water-cooler chats, employees at keyboards or executive pow-wows as examples of innovation in action. After all, research shows that's where a lot of innovation actually occurs in organizations. This is valuable insight for leaders, who have many options for encouraging innovative thinking throughout the organization.

The walk
To begin, if leaders want employees to become more innovative in their daily work, those at the top must be willing to demonstrate how that is done. A study from researchers in The Netherlands found that the leadership behaviors of "innovative role-modeling" and "providing vision" were among those that influenced both idea generation and the application of new ideas by employees. Jeroen P. J. de Jong (2007) of EIM Small Business Research and Consultancy and Deanne N. Den Hartog of the University of Amsterdam Business School conducted interviews in knowledge-based service companies and combed through the literature, finding that 13 specific leadership behaviors were linked with innovative employee behavior.

But that doesn't mean such behaviors are common in organizations today. In fact, leaders don't always "walk the walk" in regard to innovation, according to a global study of 293 senior executives by Oliver Wyman of Delta Organization & Leadership in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit ("Executives," 2007). The Global Leadership Imperative series found that more than half of respondents said their leaders failed to set a clear course for innovation or create the kind of environment that supports innovation. Furthermore, 68% said their leaders failed to facilitate idea generation. Without visible evidence from the top that employee innovation is, in fact, critical to business results, workers are unlikely to reach that conclusion on their own.

The talk
Communication—both from outside the organization and within it—is another key factor in increasing employee innovation, according to the Netherlands study. Leaders who "talk the talk" can prompt innovative employee behavior. One way of doing this is by "organizing feedback" that comes from outside the company. For example, leaders can ensure that customer input or the results of new product trials are shared with employees.

Leaders can encourage internal communication through a variety of channels, and technology is playing a crucial role in facilitating these connections. A 2007 Best Practices in HR article based on Lynne A. Robinson's book Trust Your Gut: How the Power of Intuition Can Grow Your Business offers several suggestions ("13 Ways," 2007). Communication strategies that can help spark creative thinking in the workplace include cross-department gatherings that engage both creative and analytical types of employees, informal lunch sessions hosted by a named "chief creative officer," unstructured meetings that encourage playful thinking, and blogs or online communities for employees to offer ideas regarding the firm's products or services.

The work
Positive role models and strong communications are a good start, but employees need to be able to embrace innovation within the context of their daily jobs. The Netherlands researchers found two ways that leaders can facilitate this. First, leaders must acknowledge employees' need for challenging work by assigning tasks that fit well with their skills and their individual stated preferences. Second, leaders must encourage employees to evaluate how things are done and prompt them to generate new ideas. Both of these leadership behaviors influence employees' idea generation, according to the study.

Employee idea generation doesn't always have to depend on traditional brainstorming, where any and all ideas are welcome. Experts from McKinsey & Company suggest that "inside the box" thinking might be more productive in some cases. A Harvard Business Review article describes how a more structured approach may actually work better for generating ideas (Coyne, Clifford, and Dye 2007). Constraints can serve a useful purpose by focusing employees on exploring possibilities and alternatives in a systematic way.

The perks
Last, innovative employee behavior is unlikely to continue for long if rewards are absent. Acknowledging innovative employee performance by giving rewards, providing employees with recognition and ensuring that sufficient time and money are available to implement new ideas are three additional leadership behaviors found to have a positive influence on employees' innovative behavior.

In summary, a leader's actions can do much to ensure that innovation becomes a natural part of every employee's workday. And a leader's own daily behavior can reinforce such behavior in the workforce, leading employees—and the organization—toward the level of innovation that truly provides a competitive edge.

13 ways to inspire creativity and intuition in your workplace. (2007, January 6). Best Practices in HR, 8.

Coyne, K. P., P. G. Clifford,  and R. Dye (2007, December). Breakthrough thinking from inside the box. Harvard Business Review, 71–78.

de Jong, J. P. J., D. N.  Den Hartog (2007). How leaders influence employees' innovative behaviour. European Journal of Innovation Management, 10(1), 41–63.

Executives fall short when leading for innovation, global leadership study shows. (2007, December 12). Business Wire.

About the Author(s)

Donna J. Bear is the Leadership Knowledge Center Manager for the Institute for Corporate Productivity. She has a B.S. degree in business administration and an M.S. degree in management and is certified as a senior professional in human resources. Her previous experience as an HR generalist/consultant spans the PEO, corporate, and not-for-profit sectors.