Novel solutions, better processes and compelling, new products and services are pressing goals of organizations, but innovation is often stifled before it starts. Leaders who drive risk aversion, experts who are too dictatorial and employees who see fear where it does not exist, unknowingly create a culture of fear—making it difficult for desired innovation to break through.
In contrast, high-performing leaders intentionally create a culture designed to engage employees and promote innovation. They do this through numerous and consistent actions that foster trust, purpose and energy in networks.
Across two programs of work I have conducted 260 interviews with successful women and men to understand the networks and collaborative practices associated with higher rates of innovation, I heard stories of extraordinarily successful innovation and stories of failed or stalled efforts. It turns out, the interactions within networks in these leaders’ groups had one of—if not the most—significant impacts on whether the right questions were asked, ideas were expressed and potential solutions were explored or refined. Plus, the level and quality of interpersonal collaboration had the greatest impact on employee engagement overall.
A sense of trust within and across groups is the foundation of innovation.
Two decades ago, my colleague Amy Edmonson identified the concept of psychological safety—the feeling that people can offer constructive criticism or a new idea in a group setting without risking disapproval or rejection. She describes it as a baseline for effective collaboration and innovation, and it is generated by trust.
When trust exists, information flows efficiently and people are willing to offer ideas, take risks and help. Trust allows people to quickly focus on what is worth doing or how to proceed, instead of worrying about another’s abilities or intentions. People are more enthused about supporting each other.
Unfortunately, the need to nurture trust is a nearly universal blind spot among leaders. Many assume that trust is something that gets built naturally over time. And, if you believe you are trustworthy, it is easy to assume others do, too. But when we assess the networks of leaders, we find lots of distrust in their organizations.
Fortunately, there are specific steps leaders can take to overcome cultures of fear and mistrust and boost organizational capacity for innovation.
Building trust is an organizational and individual decision.
Decades of research shows three forms of trust are important:
- Benevolence-based trust is built onbelief that leaders and colleagues will act with your interests in mind, not just their own.
- Integrity-based trust is built onthe belief that others will be consistent in word and deed and come through on commitments.
- Competence-based trust is built on thebelief that others have the expertise they claim.
Each type of trust can be established through specific behaviors, which can also be tracked through individual and team assessments tools. This information can be incorporated into development and performance processes. Organizational network analysis (ONA) can also be used to map negative interactions between people and groups that signify a lack of trust. With this information, leaders can identify opportunities for intervention, such as individual or team coaching, re-assignment of work or shifting reliance to high-trust individuals.
At the individual level, leaders can ensure their day-to-day interactions fuel networks of trust needed for idea generation and innovation. Interviews with the successful leaders have illustrated seemingly small but important actions and principles leaders can adapt:
- Foster idea sharing, openness and exploration of possibilities. Bring different levels and expertise together to explore a problem, make decisions and talk through priorities and processes. Battle assumptions and perceived limitations and get comfortable with “what if?” conversations.
- Don’t shut down people or ideas early on. Don’t rush to judgment early in conversations, pointing out all the reasons something can’t be done or discouraging multiple perspectives and voices. Instead, suspend criticism and doubts and allow time and space for ideas to be explored, built on or adapted.
- Show curiosity and ask questions. Make the most of interactions, whether they are planned or spontaneous, in one-on-one conversations or in groups. Learn what others are involved in or passionate about. Look for possible connections or opportunities that could be mutually rewarding.
- Take a personal risk or be willing to be wrong. Be the first to make a suggestion or put an idea on the table, then say, Challenge me. Somebody tell me something different. Model openness and vulnerability for others in the network to take risks.
- Critique ideas, not the person. When there is disagreement, focus on the idea or the process, rather than making a personal judgment. Find ways to overcome objections by asking the group to think through the solution another way or support the concept but ask for variations in the process.
- Be open to adaptation or evolution of the work as ideas emerge. Unexpected, often positive changes or outcomes will come as different people are brought into the work and ideas are combined. Don’t be rigid in your path or expectations. Try to appreciate and adapt to unforeseen directions.
- Handle bad news well. Bad news doesn’t get better. Leaders are more likely to hear about problems and mistakes early—when they are easier to solve—if others believe they will handle it well. Avoid lashing out in anger, focusing on blame or saying it’s fine but giving cues of disappointment (e.g., slumping shoulders, sighs, frowns). Accept that mistakes happen. Focus on learning and next steps, asking, Do you have ideas of how you want to move forward?” And laugh when you can, even in difficult circumstances.
Leadership sets the culture for innovation. But if trust does not exist in networks, employees are not engaged. They hold back ideas and effort. Otherwise well-designed initiatives to drive innovation will fall flat, and ground-breaking, game-changing innovation will always be just out of reach.
Take a deeper look at the role of trust, purpose and energy in creating collaboration needed for innovation in our article A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company. And use our Performance and Engagement Online Assessment or Card Deck to explore ways to engage others and bolster innovation.Share!