How Leadership Behavior is Squashing Innovation and Creativity

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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.

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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.

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry and to the Employee Engagement Power 100 list, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished international speaker, author, and strategist on performance improvement. A respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, talent and employee engagement, she’s a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Michelle speaks and writes about what she knows first-hand – as a former executive of a Fortune 100 global conglomerate, and as a researcher and strategist. She passionately shares new insights and tools for leaders to confidently, effectively and strategically lead their organizations to success.

Michelle is the Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University and President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association. Michelle was the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine, and has been featured on Fox Television, the BBC, in Fortune, Business Week, Inc. and other global publications, and contributed to the books Bull Market by Seth Godin, Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, and Social Media Isn’t Social.   




2 Comments on “How Leadership Behavior is Squashing Innovation and Creativity

  1. I find that antagonistic leadership behavior such as Six Sigma and LEAN applied to human organizations is destructive. Managers are taught to think of humans as liability instead of assets. I have learned to stay away from companies that are in love with these efficiency ideologies/methodologies, because they tend to be cheap, mean and kill employee morale. Which results in low productivity and poor products.

    1. Such measures try to teach creativity by following instructions– non-sensical when you think about it.

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