Innovation is a mindset – and it’s one inclusive leaders can foster

A recent report by The American Enterprise Institute indicates that nearly 9 of every 10 Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are now gone, merged, or contracted. Increasingly, the ability to innovate is emerging as essential to survival, and critical to developing and sustaining competitive advantage. But how do organisations find new ways to promote innovation work behaviours? What can be done to cultivate a workforce that develops, promotes and implements new ideas day-to-day?

Numerous studies show that employees are more likely to demonstrate innovative work behaviour when they have a strong, quality-based relationship with their leader(s). In particular, Inclusive Leadership has been posited as a critical way to promote innovative work behaviours. Why? Because inclusive leaders are more likely to invite and appreciate others’ contributions, provide employees with access to decision-making and other organisational resources, and present themselves as available and willing to spend time helping their team in the pursuit of innovation.

Nevertheless, being innovative is not without its risks. To be innovative means challenging the status quo, exploring untested methods and taking the initiative to chart new pathways. With innovation comes the risk of failure – more often than not, new ideas will fail, and challenges to ways of working might be rejected by other colleagues in the workplace. Critically then, inclusive leaders also give employees a voice – for generating, promoting and implementing ideas. In doing so, these leaders promote a psychologically safe environment for the risk-taking behaviours inherent to innovation.

Research, conducted by Dr Basharat Javed and colleagues, explored the relationship between inclusive leadership, innovative work behaviours, and psychological safety. In essence, the researchers found that inclusive leadership is positively related to innovative work behaviour, and this relationship is, in part, explained by feelings of psychological safety.

Aim

This research had two key aims:

  1. to confirm a positive link between inclusive leadership and innovative work behaviour
  2. to determine whether part of this link could be attributed to inclusive leaders providing employees with the ‘safety’ to innovate
Method

Participants were recruited from 20 small and medium size organisations from the Textile industry in Pakistan – an industry under pressure to innovate. The researchers first collected data from a randomised sample of employees whose job roles had direct involvement with innovation. Employees were asked to complete a questionnaire with questions about their experience of inclusive leadership (e.g., ‘The Manager is ready to listen to my requests’) and psychological safety (e.g., ‘I am able to bring up problems and tough issues’). In this study “inclusive leadership” was defined as behaviours of openness, accessibility, and availability. Two weeks later, the line managers of participating employees were approached and asked to complete a questionnaire with questions on innovative work behaviours (E.g., Transforming innovative ideas into useful applications’). The total sample consisted of 180 employees and 180 corresponding line managers.

Findings

Consistent with the first hypothesis, researchers found a positive relationship between inclusive leadership and innovative work behaviour. Dr Javed and his colleagues argue that when encouraging innovation, employees benefit not only from having a quality-based relationship with their leader, but also tangible and intangible support from their organisational environment. When leaders demonstrate inclusive behaviour, they can effectively serve as a conduit for organisational support. Inclusive leaders not only respect the ideas of their employees and motivate them to take on challenges, but they also help provide support through resource access (e.g., time, space, materials) and political support critical for promoting and legitimising new ideas.

In partial support for the second hypothesis, the inclusive leadership-innovative work behaviour relationship was partially accounted for by the creation of a psychologically safe work environment. The support provided by inclusive leaders creates a wider sense of psychological safety. Inclusive leaders foster workplace cultures where ideas and opinions are valued and respected, make themselves available to discuss new work ideas or opportunities, and help protect their employees from the potential downfalls associated with high-risk innovation. However, the findings come with a reasonable caution. While inclusive leaders do provide employees with the ‘safety’ to explore and innovate, there are additional pathways of influence which may drive innovative work behaviour. For example, inclusive leadership could, theoretically, empower employees by providing them with greater autonomy. Employees who feel a greater sense of empowerment (in additional to psychological safety) are also likely to engage in more innovative work behaviour.

Implications

This research suggests a number of practical strategies for organisations and their leaders to consider, to drive innovative work practices:

  • Develop relational leaders: Leaders should consciously cultivate strong relationships with employees. Practical strategies include the provision of support during challenge, as well as being actively attentive to and recognising employee efforts.
  • Promote accessibility: Provide employees with access. Leaders have access to the breadth of organisational support that employees need to be able to innovate. Invite employees to participate in decision-making, involve them in key discussions, or provide them with allocated time to engage in innovation-specific activities (e.g., attending an innovation committee).
  • Promote psychological safety: Recognise the role leaders play in building and maintaining a psychologically safe work environment. Encourage employees to test and put new ideas into practice, without fear of failure. Being innovative is risky, and more often than not, new ideas can fail to take off. While one cannot guarantee success, leaders can foster innovation by guaranteeing that employees will not be punished for trying something new.
  • Develop inclusive leaders: Consider strategies for assessing leaders and evaluating the extent to which they are inclusive of diversity. Support leaders to role model inclusive behaviours and practice inclusion daily.

For more information, contact Abigail Budiawan

To read the full article, see Javed, B., Naqvi, S. M. M. R., Khan, A. K., Arjoon, S., & Tayyeb, H. H. (2017). Impact of inclusive leadership on innovative work behavior: The role of psychological safety. Journal of Management & Organization, 1-20.


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