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Lead Your Employees to be Creative and Innovative

By Paul Sloane

Q.Who is crushing creativity?
A.Not me –my boss.

If you speak to people about what is impeding innovation in their organizations you often encounter a paradox. Senior managers feel frustrated that their people are complacent; they are not showing initiative or enterprise. Mid-level managers and support staff feel upset that they are micromanaged, that they are not empowered to try out their own ideas and that their managers stop them from challenging the established way of doing things. Both groups blame the other for the company’s problems.

Who is really at fault? Middle managers may block new proposals, but the real problem lies with the leaders. It is easy for company leaders to make visionary statements that include all the right words about the importance of innovation, change, enterprise and risk. Unless, however, they back up the words with actions they will be seen as paying lip service to innovation and not having the will to make it happen.

A recent survey on idea receptiveness shows that people consider themselves to be open to new ideas but consider their bosses to be closed. Whereas only 4 percent of respondents thought they would not consider outside ideas, fully 31 percent thought that their bosses would not. According to the survey, bosses are much more likely to claim the credit for outsiders’ ideas and more likely to reject challenging questions or suggestions than are the respondents.

What does this mean? One possibility is that only reactionary diehards are promoted. A more likely hypothesis is that we are critical of our boss’s behaviour but that we have a blind spot for the same failings in ourselves. What the survey says about us is more telling than what it says about our managers. We think of ourselves as open-minded and receptive, but maybe this is not the case. What if we are just as bad as the managers but fail to see it?

How can leaders become more receptive and more open to challenging ideas? How can we create a climate that empowers people, allows risk-taking and encourages innovation? The following are some pointers that any current and future manager should absorb.

  • Listen more and tell less.We are all in a terrible hurry, but if leaders swiftly dismiss the complaints, suggestions and ideas of their people and tell them to focus on the task in hand, they send many negative signals and discourage initiative. If leaders spend time carefully listening to people’s objections and proposals they are likely to uncover the real issues and find useful ideas.
  • Recognise risk-takers. If an employee comes up with a good idea that you implement then make a fuss of them. Praise and recognise them in front of the crowd. Send a message that challenging the way things are done is welcomed.
  • Reward failure.If a staff member makes an honest attempt to try something new and different and fails, do not chastise or blame them. Recognise their endeavour and see what lessons can be learned. Nothing crushes enterprise like a fear of failure. If a company is going to succeed with innovation employees are going to have quite a few failures along the way – welcome and manage them.
  • Ask for suggestions. Throw down a challenge. Explain the goal you are trying to achieve and ask people for their input and ideas. Encourage a free flow of ideas. Suspend judgment during the idea generation phase. Evaluate the best proposals and implement them.
  • Set innovation goals. Define metrics for innovation and include them in a balanced scorecard. These metrics may include the number of ideas generated, the number of prototypes in trial, the proportion of revenue from new products or the meantime between idea evaluation and implementation. People do what gets measured, so measure innovation.
  • Invest in training. Train your people in how to generate, evaluate and implement ideas.
  • Borrow with pride. Observe other organizations and copy their best practices. Establish a policy for sourcing innovations from outside your business. Establish links with universities, business networks and other successful organizations.

Most people blame “the system” or their bosses for inhibiting their creativity. But when we talk about great leaders who inspire their teams it is plain that we all fall short of the ideal. Senior managers need to make greater efforts to encourage people to be creative, challenging and adventurous. Ultimately, it all comes down to the actions of the leaders. Innovative leaders communicate with inspiring words and then quietly reinforce those words with actions. They challenge, they ask, they listen and they empower. In innovative organizations, leaders build the self-belief of their people. It is this self-belief that unlocks the door to successful innovation.

About the Author:

Paul Sloane is the founder of Destination Innovation, a consultancy that helps improve innovation. He gives talks and workshops on leadership, creativity and innovation. He is the author of 17 books; the most recent is The Innovative Leader, published by Kogan-Page. Contact Paul Sloane at psloane (at) or visit