In many organizations, leaders complain that their employees aren’t creative. But employees complain that they are micromanaged and not empowered to try out new ideas. Who’s really at fault here?

I help organizations to improve innovation. Sometimes when I carry out innovation audits to find out what is impeding innovation I encounter a paradox. Senior managers in an organization feel frustrated that their people are complacent; they are not showing initiative or enterprise. People lower down the organization feel upset that they are micromanaged, that they are not empowered to try out their own ideas and that their managers stop them from challenging the established way of doing things. Both groups blame the other.

Who is really at fault here? It is often true that middle managers block new proposals. But the real problem lies with the leaders. It is easy for them to make visionary statements that include all the right words about how important innovation, change, enterprise and risk are. But unless they back up the words with actions they will be seen as paying lip service to innovation and not having the will to make it happen.

Some solutions to the problem

How can leaders become more receptive, more open to challenging ideas? How can we create a climate that empowers people, allows risk-taking and encourages innovation? Here are some pointers:

Listen more and tell less. We are all in a terrible hurry but if we swiftly dismiss the complaints, suggestions and ideas of our people and tell them to focus on the task in hand we send many negative signals and discourage initiative. If we spend time carefully listening to people’s objections and proposals we are likely to uncover the real issues and find useful ideas.

Recognize risk-takers. If someone comes up with a good idea that you implement then make a fuss of them. Praise and recognise them in front of the crowd. Send a message that challenging the way things are done is welcomed.

Reward failure. If someone makes an honest attempt to try something new and different and fails then do not chastise or blame them. Recognise their endeavour and see what lessons can be learnt. Nothing crushes enterprise like a fear of failure. If you are going to succeed with innovation you are going to have quite a few failures along the way – so welcome and manage them.

Ask for suggestions. Throw down a challenge. Explain the goal you are trying to achieve and then ask people for their input and ideas. Encourage a free flow of ideas. Suspend judgment during the idea generation phase. Evaluate the best proposals and then implement them.

Set goals for innovation. Define metrics for innovation and include them in your balanced scorecard. These might include number of ideas generated, number of prototypes in trial, proportion of revenue from new products, or meantime between idea evaluation and implementation. People do what gets measured so measure innovation.

Invest in training. Train your people in how to generate, how to evaluate and how to implement ideas.

Borrow with pride. Observe other organizations and copy their best practice. Have a deliberate policy for sourcing innovations from outside your business. Establish links with Universities, business networks and other successful organizations.

Most people blame “the system” or their bosses for inhibiting their creativity. But when we talk about great leaders who inspire their teams it is plain that we all fall short of the ideal. We need to make greater efforts to encourage our people to be creative, challenging and adventurous. Ultimately, it all comes down to the actions of the leaders. Innovative leaders communicate with inspiring words and then quietly reinforce those words with actions. They challenge, they ask, they listen, they empower. In innovative organization leaders build the self-belief of their people. It is this self-belief that unlocks the door to successful innovation.

Please share your opinion

People consider themselves to be quite open to new ideas but consider their bosses to be rather closed. Whereas only 4% of respondents [to my previously published survey] thought they would not consider outside ideas, fully 31% thought that their boss would not. According to the survey bosses are much more likely to claim the credit for outsider’s ideas and more likely to reject challenging questions or suggestions than the respondents are.

What does this mean? One possibility is that only reactionary diehards are promoted. A more likely hypothesis is that we are critical of our boss’s behaviour but that we have a blind spot for the same failings in ourselves. What the survey says about us is more telling than what it says about our managers. We think of ourselves as open-minded and receptive but maybe this is not the case. I guess that the managers see themselves as open and receptive too. What if we were just as bad as the managers but fail to see it?

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills. He is the founder of Destination Innovation.