Innovation at work: three ways to manage the emotional swirl

“Innovation,” said someone we met recently, about a business that is losing many of its more experienced staff, “is nature’s way of thinning out the herd”.

At one level, the comment wasn’t wrong. Indeed, even those who discredit disruption acknowledge the vital role of incremental innovation in driving both long-term survival and sustainable growth. But businesses are made up of human beings – and if you place this seemingly innocuous (if cold) phrase into that context, it’s a bit simplistic.

Success in business is ultimately driven by which ideas survive and thrive. Not all great ideas people are great politicians. And in this one fact lies a world of pain.

Survival, as anyone who has Googled Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will know, is a major motivational driver of human behaviour – in business as well as life in general. If I perceive that your ideas about our company threaten my survival, I am more likely than not to try and undermine them. And that’s just one consideration. Throw into the mix, say, belonging, esteem and status, and it’s all too easy for a raft of unmet needs to create an emotional swirl that stops ideas from flourishing (or flourishing quickly).

In our business, we talk about how innovators often end up heading in despair for the beanbag or the bypass – which is to say, they either lose themselves in blue sky thinking that can never be made into operational reality, or attempt to dodge the body politic until their ideas are at a late stage of development. In both cases, the host usually ends up rejecting the donor organ. Why? Go to the emotional context in which those people were attempting to innovate, and you’ll probably find the answer.

At Corporate Punk we believe that all human beings are innately creative (just look at a child playing and you’ll see what we mean). We also believe that, in all but the rarest circumstances, everybody working in a given organisation has the ability to make a meaningful contribution to the process of innovation. And we believe that leaders who want to innovate have a responsibility to manage the pivotal role of human needs and emotions in their day-to-day work.

This is partly because leadership is an innately human job. It comes with a duty of care to nurture wellbeing amongst those being led; to address the often hidden factors that can bring about unhappiness, stress or tension. It is also partly a question of good business practice: leaders have a responsibility to push their organisations forward in the most efficient and effective ways possible. This starts with creating a functional culture. ‘Thinning out the herd’ should not be the number one business priority in all but the direst financial straits (in which case it’s worth pausing to ask how those circumstances came about). Harnessing the power of your people to ensure that they always perform at their creative best is the primary role of 21st century leadership.

This is easy to say, but can be punishingly hard to make happen. For example, a lot of ‘values development’ projects are commissioned with the best of intentions – “let’s re-align everyone around a shared set of beliefs”. But they often end up having almost no tangible effect on business as usual, for the reason that people will always revert to behaving in the ways that come naturally to them. If a person’s values are not aligned with the company’s values in the first place, no amount of training will correct that.

Three things you can do

Thankfully, there are many things that leaders can do to manage the emotional swirl and harness the power of their ‘herd’. Here are just three. While they’re not easy, in our experience all are invaluable.

Firstly, take the money that you would have spent on ‘embedding’ your values, and use it to rethink your approach to recruitment. Only get people on board whose belief systems are totally aligned to your own. And, if you need to define your company values in order to do this, look at how your people already behave and lift the good stuff from that. If you’re unsure where to start, find some decent advisors to help.

Secondly, embrace a more conscious and communicative style of leadership. As we’ve established, innovation can feel innately threatening – so you might as well acknowledge this fact, and engage people around your business in an active conversation about it. Doing this can be hard emotional labour, but it is remarkable what a sense of relief and shared purpose often results from a connected conversation about how difficult doing new stuff can feel. The opportunities for coaching and mentorship on the back of this are enormous.

Thirdly, when innovation does create the need for talent release, think carefully about the basis on which you are making your decisions. Years ago, someone asked the CEO of Egg Banking what was the hardest thing he’d learned in business. His response? “When the people who have helped you to get where you are aren’t the people to help take you forward”. This feels weighty and real, but the foundation of those insights is important. Releasing people based on a lack of shared values is the right thing to do, as is release that is driven by the need for new functional capabilities. But letting people go based on the belief that they are incapable of creating or embracing innovation just isn’t good enough. ‘Thinning out the herd’ on that basis is always, and only, a failure of leadership.