How Leadership Behavior is Squashing Innovation and Creativity

© uwimages - Fotolia

For any organization to be successful, it has to continually innovate and evolve. This is one of the great business lessons that have withstood the test of time.

In his book, True Alignment: Linking Company Culture with Customer Needs for Extraordinary Results, author Edgar Papke notes that one of the keys to organizational success – especially in the area of innovation – is its employees’ ability to openly and confidently express their ideas.

The free flow of new ideas is essential for keeping an organization competitive, and is at the heart of building employee buy-in and getting them to take ownership of both their own work and the company’s objectives.

Leaders are often the culprit

However, of all the obstacles that can thwart innovation and creativity in the workplace, more often than not a leader is the main culprit.

While leaders may not intentionally mean to squash innovation, some of their behaviors may prevent their employees from feeling free to act imaginatively or to openly express their ideas. These behaviors can kill creative spirit and negatively impact the organization’s culture, keeping it from leveraging its most important asset – the critical and inventive thinking of its employees.

Leadership behaviors that inhibit innovation

  1. The inability to listen well. When leaders don’t pay attention to or show respect for employees’ ideas, it discourages employees from engaging or sharing more of their thinking. This hinders everyone’s candor, as well as inhibiting the informal open dialogue required for the original and analytical thinking required to solve problems.
  2. Taking ownership of an idea. Not only will employees feel betrayed by a leader who takes credit for their ideas, but it also diminishes their sense of responsibility – keeping them from feeling challenged to be even more creative. When employees don’t get the proper recognition for their creative contributions, it undermines their motivation and destroys their trust in leadership.
  3. Excessively testing and questioning new ideas. There’s a fine line between a leader’s inquiries being perceived as helpful, or being experienced as criticism. When challenging employees to think more strategically, don’t make them feel like their ideas are never good enough or that they’re not living up to your expectations. Proceed cautiously and consider the employee’s potential reaction when challenging their thinking.
  4. Failing to communicate organizational goals. Clearly communicating corporate goals and aligning employees’ thinking towards those goals engages staff and affords them the opportunity to make a contribution to the company. Help employees to fully understand the company’s vision and you will be amazed at how that clarity will inform and improve their thinking.

Leadership actions to leverage employee creativity

  • Actively work to improve your listening skills; invite candor and openness in all discussions.
  • Give full credit and recognition to those that deserve it for their innovative ideas.
  • Constructively challenge (don’t micro-manage) employees to let their imaginations soar.
  • Create clarity and context; focus employees’ creativity towards the organization’s vision, strategy and goals.

Leaders need to acknowledge – and appreciate – their role in creating a culture of innovation and strive to become better coaches of creativity.

Article Continues Below

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

Michelle M. Smith

A highly accomplished international speaker, strategist, and author on performance improvement; Michelle is a respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, employee engagement and talent. She’s published and presented more than 1,100 articles and lectures and is a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and governments.

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished industry leader who has worked in every facet of recognition and incentives, both domestically and internationally.

She has appeared on Fox Television and the BBC, and been featured in magazines like Fortune, Business Week, Inc., and Return on Performance; as well as national radio programs, and contributions to the books “Bull Market” by Seth Godin, “Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk,” and “Social Media Isn’t Social.”

Michelle is President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association and Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University. She’s Vice President, Research for the Business Marketing Association and serves on the Boards of the Incentive Federation and the Incentive & Engagement Solutions Council. She was also the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine.