Posted tagged ‘Feirong Yuan’

Why I Don’t Innovate At Work

February 18, 2010

Andrew O’Connell has an interesting post at the Harvard Business Review blog titled Why I don’t Innovate At Work. The post references research done by Feirong Yuan of the University of Kansas and Richard W. Woodman of Texas A&M. Yuan and Woodman found that worries about image risk significantly diminish employees’ innovativeness.

“For an employee who works on a job that does not normally ask for innovativeness (e.g., a blue-collar worker whose job is assembling furniture), if he has an innovative suggestion for a new work procedure, he may be afraid to express it because of the concern that his coworkers (and supervisors) might think he is stepping out of line,” Yuan explained to me. Not even a solid and trusting relationship with a supervisor mitigates this problem, she and Woodman report in an upcoming issue of theĀ Academy of Management Journal.

“That’s sad. It’s sad for employees and it’s sad for companies. Everyday innovation by ordinary workers should be organizations’ lifeblood. I’m no different from the people in the study. I’m just as unwilling to upset the status quo as they are.”

There are a couple of things managers can do, Yuan and Woodman say. One is to create a culture in which everyone understands that being innovative is a desirable image. That’s easier said than done, however. Another, more concrete, suggestion is to “break job position stereotypes” by rewriting job descriptions to include a requirement that employees contribute new ideas. Such a straightforward approach might help employees get over their socially induced hesitation, the research suggests.

I’ve noticed that those of us who resist innovating for fear of others’ opinions are sometimes quickest to point a finger at the innovators among us. We’re the grown-up equivalents of the whisperers and gigglers, the perpetrators of negative peer pressure. We have an obligation to be aware of that tendency. If we won’t innovate, we should at least make every effort to cut some slack to the coworker with the oddball ideas, even if he’s sometimes a little too nerdy and a little too insistent. Now that would be an innovation.

It takes courage to speak up at work and put forth thoughts on how to do things differently. Most people are too afraid to risk having their ideas shot down, so they simply don’t innovate at work. Talented people are the lifeblood of any organization and if people are not fully engaged or comfortable with expressing their ideas, then the creativity and commitment your organization needs to continually grow and take on new challenges will suffer.

I like the idea of putting in a job description that employee ideas are expected or welcome. Can you imagine a governmental job description that states your ideas for change are encouraged and welcomed? To create an innovative work environment, it is important to encourage people by giving them explicit approval to contribute their ideas. The next time you are looking to create or fill a position, help further innovation in your organization by encouraging ideas from your employees.