Are Your Employees Scared to Innovate?

For employees afraid to speak up or rock the boat, your encouragement can make all the difference in innovation.
CEO, Small Business Trends LLC
April 04, 2012

From reading several books, articles and blog posts about innovation, you might think this kind of thinking is something that happens only in special innovation rooms, rarely held brainstorming meetings, or as a result of “strategic initiatives” led from the top down. However, innovation can (and should) be happening all over your company, every day.

But many obstacles stand in the way—the biggest of which is fear:

  • Fear of looking stupid. Employees don’t want to put time and effort into an idea only to have it be rejected or ridiculed. Shy employees may fear speaking up, and many good ideas can be lost this way.
  • Fear of backlash. Employees who suggest an innovation that changes the status quo (and don’t they all?) might cause more work for their teammates—at least in the short term. This can lead to some unpleasant interpersonal relationships.
  • Fear of firing. In today’s economy, employees are leery to rock the boat for any reason. Making any suggestions that imply the company (or the boss) isn’t doing everything right might seem too risky.

How can you overcome these fears and encourage your team to make innovation part of daily life?

Tell them. Do you assume employees know they should come up with new ideas, even though you’ve never discussed it with them? Gather your team and let them know why innovation is so valuable. Explain how new ideas can help you become and industry leader and stay ahead of the competition.

Entice them. The best way to get people to do things is to spell out what’s in it for them. What do your employees stand to gain if they come up with, develop and contribute to innovative ideas? Bonuses? Raises? Promotions? Profit sharing? Even the security of knowing their employer is profitable and growing is a good motivator in today’s economy.

Remind them. Clarify that innovation isn’t a “special” or “one-time” activity; employees should be thinking of new products, new services and new ways to do things every day. Encourage them to pay attention to the processes, interactions and systems that may seem rote and look at them with new eyes.

Empower them. You can encourage ongoing innovation by authorizing your employees to try new things without getting permission. Of course, you’ll want to set some boundaries: Perhaps employees can spend X amount of money to resolve a customer issue in a new way. Also make sure employees note what was done and what the results were so you can assess the outcome later.

Support them. Take all ideas seriously, no matter how silly they may seem. Dismissive or critical responses will cut your innovation program off at the knees. Give every suggestion the respect it deserves, even if you don’t implement it.

Lead them. You can’t expect employees to innovate if you’re not thinking creatively yourself. As you go through your day, think about new ways you could do things better, faster or differently. Be willing to share your ideas, even if they're less-than-stellar—it helps get everyone’s wheels turning. Model the behavior you want to see.

Recognize them. In addition to any other rewards you may give, be generous with public praise when employees come up with new ideas, whether you implement them or not. By creating a culture where new ideas are valued and recognized, you’ll build a business where innovation is as natural as breathing.

How do you encourage your team to innovate every day?