Do Leaders Get in the Way of Employee Creativity?

No matter the position and level of an employee, business leaders are consistently looking for creative thinkers to aid in keeping their companies relevant and competitive. However, with certain hierarchal structures in place, is it possible that leaders get in the way of their employees’ creativity?

While some managers may be viewed as overbearing by their subordinates, creative flow necessitates idea generation and openness to suggestions at all levels of an organization. Rather than a potential barrier to productivity, leaders should view these practices as ways to maximize their employees’ contributions, explains Joel Carnevale, assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management.

“In reality, many companies say they value and desire employee creativity, but, in practice, they often stifle employees’ willingness to voice their novel ideas,” Carnevale says. “There are numerous reasons for why managers are often resistant to their employees’ ideas, such as concern over being outshined by their subordinates, fear of advocating for an idea that may not be successful or simply the natural aversion to change.”

Organizations that ensure that leadership is willing to support employee creativity are often the most effective at instilling an innovative culture. But, how can both employees and leaders guarantee this practice within a firm?

“Employees should start by looking for opportunities that will allow them to take on additional responsibility,” suggests Carnevale. “Developing and effectively communicating novel and practical ideas necessitates a diverse skill set (e.g., domain-specific knowledge, soft interpersonal skills, etc.), so seeking out opportunities for growth can help employees become more successful at conceptualizing and advocating for their ideas.”

Voicing an opinion as an entry-level employee can seem risky, however, especially if one is unsure how speaking up will be received. 

“I would recommend starting small with ideas, given entry-level employees’ lack of status and most individuals’ — including managers’ — aversion to change. Employees may want to consider breaking down their ideas into more palatable suggestions that can be implemented over time, rather than advocating for a dramatic change that might be more difficult for managers to support,” he says.

Even with this advice in mind, employees may still face rejection, of which Carnevale urges them to embrace. “In other words, employees must develop resilience. Those advocating for change and ground-breaking ideas are bound to face rejection at some point or another, even in environments where it is safe to challenge the status quo. Sometimes your brilliant ideas aren’t as brilliant as you thought they were, and that’s okay because rejection and refinement of one’s ideas are often a necessary part of the creative process,” he says.

As for leaders looking to support this creative process, Carnevale suggests considering ways to provide opportunities and resources that can help employees take more initiative, such as encouraging information sharing and increasing autonomy. 

“In addition, leaders should find ways to promote a psychologically safe environment where employees are free to voice their creative ideas without fear of repercussion. One way to do this is to simply let employees know you want to hear what they have to say. Another way is to acknowledge and praise those who do speak up. When employees see other members of their work environment successfully speak up, they are more likely to voice their own novel ideas and suggestions,” he explains.

For more details on this topic, see Joel Carnevale’s article featured on Entrepreneur.

Julia Fiedler
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