Can you be a nice guy (or girl) and still be innovative? Ever since Steve Jobs passed away, much has been made of his famously arrogant work style and the innovation breakthroughs that resulted from his approach. To cite just one example, in his article "Why You Won't Get Breakthrough Innovation by Being Nice" for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, Simon Rucker contends that “nicely-nicely” work cultures at work are hampering innovation, and that true creativity requires a brutally honest Steve Jobs approach.
It’s hard to argue with success, and in recent years no innovator has succeeded like Steve Jobs. But does that mean you have to be obnoxious to be innovative? While I get where Rucker is coming from, part of me feels the opposite is true.
Picture the typical freewheeling environment of a brainstorming session or impassioned meeting, with people throwing out all kinds of ideas, loudly interrupting and contradicting each other. While it’s clear people won’t always be models of politeness in this type of setting, that doesn't mean they have to be obnoxious.
Putting others down or hurling insults will shut down just as many ideas as it encourages. There are plenty of people who are wildly creative, but not confident enough to thrive in a dog-eat-dog environment. If they know they’re going to get stepped on, they’ll sit quietly and their breakthrough ideas will never make it out of their heads. As the entrepreneur, it’s your job to facilitate an atmosphere where these employees’ contributions are encouraged, not quashed.
That doesn’t mean you have to coddle them. As Rucker suggests, you can’t be too nice. For instance, no business owner would pursue weak ideas just to make someone feel better. But a smart business owner knows how to quickly redirect the group to focus on the best ideas and drop the worst, without crushing the people who came up with the bad ones.
Even within a tight-knit group like a small business, we all know some people who prefer harsher interaction, and others who need to be handled more delicately. What works for one team member may not work for another. And really, this difference is what it all boils down to.
An environment where everyone is a Steve Jobs is just as bad for innovation as one where everyone is kindergarten-teacher sweet. That’s because innovation occurs when work environments encourage all kinds of ideas from all kinds of people. An equal dose of arrogance and niceness can be tolerated, as long as it supports innovation. But when either type of behavior gets in the way of creativity, that’s when it’s time to draw the line.
Do you think arrogant people are more innovative? And how do you deal with them in your workplace?
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