5 Things Leaders Do That Stifle Innovation

By Kerry Goyette
September 1, 2020

To avoid the myopia that comes from being fixated on constant innovation, create a work environment marked by autonomy, flexibility and productivity.

In 2018, for the first time, the U.S. slipped out of Bloomberg’s Top 10 most innovative countries. But this isn’t necessarily a hint of entrepreneurship’s demise; it’s a reflection of the unpredictable, tumultuous environment we find ourselves in.

To be a serious competitor in the international market, companies must hire emotionally intelligent leaders who have the ability to look ahead and develop strategies that will help them collaborate with their teams and adapt quickly to change. Many leaders have a natural inclination to hire employees who demonstrate characteristics that they associate with entrepreneurship, such as creativity and resourcefulness. But our research shows that it’s far more crucial for managers to focus on what we call “derailers” when selecting and coaching their teams.

Derailers are the characteristics that impede innovation and erode our productiveness over time.

Here are the most detrimental and common derailers that we identified in our study:

UNCONSCIOUS NEGLECT: A tendency toward carelessness and impulsivity, such as sending work before it’s ready or rushing to send quick responses, which come across as uncaring.

OVERPROTECTIVENESS: Holding back on your best work and being reluctant to share achievements for fear that your ideas will be stolen.

OVERCONFIDENCE: Leaning on your ego and willpower rather than asking for help, even when you need it.

OVEREXERTION: Pushing yourself beyond reasonable limits.

DEVALUATION: Taking success for granted, and underappreciating your relationships and resources out of an urge to pursue the next new thing.
On a small scale, these derailers are fairly unobtrusive. But when leaders exemplify or encourage this kind of behavior on a regular basis, it can have an avalanche effect. Our study reveals that derailing tendencies often result in failure on the individual level — no matter how many positive qualities someone possesses — which, if unaddressed, will eventually affect the performance of the team at large.

There are ways, however, to mitigate derailers and foster innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset among your team members.

Derailer: Unconscious neglect

Solution: Align projects with company goals, and hold people accountable for them.

If you work with someone who juggles more projects than he or she can manage, is careless with time management and fails to hold employees accountable for their decisions, you have to call their behavior out when you see it. It’s vital for employees to pause and reflect on how they can accomplish their goals, as well as what has impeded their success in the past. Only then will they be able to move forward and better align their own goals with the company’s.

Derailer: Overprotectiveness

Solution: Encourage employees to find mentors.

Overprotective employees tend to shield their ideas and keep their networks small. For example, a startup leader I worked with was worried that others would steal his company’s ideas. But he didn’t see any success until he began to seek out advisers to guide him through the different areas of his business. By sharing his ideas and goals, he was able to gain valuable insights and grow his revenue.

Developing a diverse network helps encourage innovation among your employees. If you’re a manager, this means helping workers seek out mentors who are willing to give tough feedback and push them to improve. Here are four types of mentors they should have in their arsenal:

  • Superstars: People who can act as role models and help mentees recognize their potential.
  • Connectors: People who are generous with their networks and can make important connections.
  • Resource managers: People who are aware of all the resources that are available in an organization and can help their mentees access the ones they need.
  • Accountability partners: People who are willing to listen to what mentees are going through and make sure they do something about it.

To find these people, encourage your employees to join a professional group with members from a variety of industries, attend entrepreneurial meetups and join social media groups related to their areas of professional interest.

Derailer: Overconfidence

Solution: Hope for the best, but prepare employees for the worst.

Innovation blindness can occur when employees are overconfident. These workers often overestimate the importance of their abilities and underestimate the overarching goals of their team or organization.

As a leader, you need to help them see the big picture. Establish a procedure that requires teams to list their anticipated challenges at the start of new projects. You should also ask questions that increase their awareness of potential obstacles. For example, “What are the consequences of this decision?” and “What contingency plans do we have in place?”

Anticipating challenges can help employees feel more mentally prepared to handle problems if they do arise, and more comfortable reaching out to others for help.

Derailer: Overexertion

Solution: Make sure team members take time to recharge.

When employees are derailed by overexertion, they can lose their inspiration and drive. Innovation and creativity often come in quieter moments when subconscious connections are made. Sleep, mindfulness and recreation can help clear the mind’s clutter.

Build trusted relationships with your team by giving them space to admit when they need a break, and regularly check in on these needs during one-on-one meetings. Some team members might struggle to be straightforward, so listen for their limits. Some common signs of stress to watch for include micromanaging, impulsiveness, inflexibility, withdrawing from others and being overcritical. Remember that each person will have different needs and levels of stamina.

Derailer: Devaluation

Solution: Teach your employees to create and work in an agile environment.

Employees who struggle with devaluation often believe they need to expend all their energy acquiring the most cutting-edge technology, robust marketing resources or qualified personnel to succeed. This sentiment is often driven by anxiety.

To avoid the myopia that comes from being fixated on constant innovation, create a work environment marked by autonomy, flexibility and productivity. Check in with your employees and find out what activities are wasting time or resources. Then streamline processes so that resources can be invested in the things that bring value to the company. This type of agile work environment creates room for trial and error, and, most importantly, builds in opportunities for adjustment.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.


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