A well-developed, well-run organization helps its employees to thrive. Under supportive, skilled management, individuals feel secure, trust that their organization values them, and feel liberated to raise concerns and propose new solutions to existing problems. A warm, relaxed, but stimulating professional climate tends to encourage innovative thinking as a result.
However, numerous organizations feature policies, structures, or cultural aspects that isolate creative people and discourage them from sharing their greatest insights. Even if an organization’s success hinges on employees’ ability to deliver insightful new ideas, aspects of how the organization may be actively stifling the development and sharing of novel approaches. Just as research has documented the factors that promote creativity in the workplace, a large body of scientific work has demonstrated that certain organizational features are “creativity killers” that an astute manager should do everything in their power to address. In particular, if your workplace features rigid hierarchies, a fixation on short-term deadlines, or hostility, serious changes must be made to transform your organization into a creatively nourishing place.
Rigid hierarchies undermine creativity and innovation
If your organization is highly structured, with a great deal of separation between lower-level employees and upper-level management, a lot of creativity is likely going unshared (Teece, 1996). When divisions based on status are firm and sizeable, lower-level employees are less likely to speak-up to air concerns or propose new solutions to problems. Collaboration between departments and between status levels is also less common because it is so difficult from individuals on different “rungs” to connect with one another (Wan, Williamson, & Yin, 2015). As a consequence, your organization doesn't utilize its full potential to innovate.
Employees from different organizational levels open up new perspectives
In many organizational settings, the perspective and knowledge base of a lower-level employee is wholly different from that of a higher-level employee. Hence, someone lower in status may be able to frame a professional problem in a way that someone higher in the hierarchy would never consider. The problem-solving process benefits from new insights and options which would otherwise not be available. However, if an organization treats its lower-level workers as dispensable or lacking in value, these creative insights may never get shared (Vuori & Huy, 2016). If they are shared, they may be disregarded by individuals with more status in the organization.
Status symbols such as dress codes, job titles, office styles reinforce hierarchies
Furthermore, in a highly structured organization, upper-level managers may be threatened by the innovation potential of those beneath them. Highly structured workplaces are typically filled with “status symbols”, to further alienate those above from those below – including different dress codes, different office styles, and different benefits, to name a few (Ashkenas et al, 2015). In this structured environment, those with status may fear being overtaken by those who lack status – and maintaining the hierarchy may become more important than producing and promoting ideas that benefit the company. For all these reasons, rigid hierarchical structures can be toxic for a forward-looking organization.
How to create an organizational structure that fosters creativity and innovation
As a manger seeking to promote innovation, you can work to remove barriers between employees higher and lower in the hierarchy.
Provide social and professional opportunities
Provide your organization with social and professional opportunities where all employees are treated as equals. This can involve coffee corners, lunch and learn events and managers that are open to feedback from all organizational levels. In addition, keep in mind that all your management interventions will be scrutinized by your team and peers whether they are fair and unbiased. Make sure that your employees understand the way you make decisions.
Give lower lower-status employees greater responsibilities
Give lower-status employees greater responsibilities, and more power, whenever possible (Naranjo-Valencia et al, 2016). You can for instance assign one of your employees the team leader role for a problem-solving project. Also consider whether your general leadership approach fosters your employees' self-responsibility and autonomy.
Remove status symbols
Remove status symbols, such as different uniforms or name tags. This starts with a dress code that doesn't require people from different hierachical levels to wear different clothes. How do you talk to your peers and employees? Are you open for suggestions from every hierarchical level or do you prefer to talk to people from the same organizational level?
Keep in mind that culture aspects play a crucial role when it comes to management and status symbols. Some cultures require you to play the status symbol game while other ones give you freedom to re-define the rules in a way such that creativity and innovation is supported.
Reorganize floors or office layouts for more interaction across status levels
Reorganize floors or office layouts so that people of different backgrounds and status levels can interact with one another more freely. Meet with people from all hierarchical levels and listen to their concerns.
It may take a while for employees of different status levels to interact in a collaborative, productive manner, but by taking these steps you can facilitate that shift.
Pressure to deliver short-term results is as creativity and innovation killer
Generally, research shows workplace stress to be a “creativity killer”. If an individual is anxious about their workplace performance, or preoccupied with short-term deadlines, they are unlikely to engage in the abstract, complex thinking required to generate a truly mold-breaking approach (Tongchaiprasit & Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2016). Frequent short-term goals can distract employees from an organization’s “big picture” – individuals may come to prioritize quick fixes and traditional ways of doing business, rather than looking ahead to the future and generating novel, challenging methods. Frequent time-intensive stress can also reduce creativity by eroding mental functioning; few people are capable of being innovative when they are sleep-deprived and exhausted (Oreg & Berson, 2015).
Reframe goals in a abstract, long-term way
Research has clearly demonstrated that a fast-pace, short-term-results oriented way of doing business is toxic for creativity. Unfortunately, a high-stress, high-speed approach remains endemic to many industries and organizations. As a manager, you can work to combat this by reframing goals in a more abstract, long-term way.
Encourage employees to introduce novel questions
Rather than evaluating employees by examining how quickly they can complete a task, encourage them to think carefully about their processes (Ozkaya et al, 2015). Reward abstract thinkers who introduce novel questions or propose different means of doing business (Ceci & Kumar, 2016).
Set forward-thinking goals
When possible, collaborate with an organization’s leadership to set forward-thinking, future oriented goals, and place emphasis on effort and process rather than immediate outcomes.
Workplace hostility undermines creativity and innovation
In the field of romantic relationship psychology, one of the main predictors of divorce is contempt. A married couple may experience a great deal of conflict, or may differ with one another on extremely important life issues, but so long as both parties respect and listen to one another, it remains possible for the relationship to thrive (Creasey, 2002). Similarly, an organization can remain vibrant and creative in the face of conflict and disagreement; it is only when hostility is shown that deep problems may arise (Sanders, Wisse, & Van Yperen, 2015).
A hostile workplace mocks, dismisses, or ignores ideas intentionally
A hostile or contemptuous workplace is one in which ideas are mocked, dismissed, or ignored intentionally (Lutgen-Sandvik, Tracy, & Alberts, 2007). Managers may exhibit low respect for their employees; employees may compete in a toxic way with one another, and take steps to undercut one another’s progress. Organizational policies may reflect a lack of interest in employees’ wellbeing, or may be designed to deliver productivity or save money, but not to leave anyone feeling satisfied. All of these elements of workplace hostility can lead to low creativity, poor communication, and a lack of collaboration.
Understand employees’ emotional reactions
Emotional skills are necessary to prevent or reduce hostility in a workplace (Cortina & Magley, 2009). An effective manager must be able to understand employees’ emotional reactions to frustrating events, and must be willing to validate hurt feelings, admit fault, and communicate openly when needed.
Encourage open communication
Strong listening skills must also be developed on all levels of the team. By making your organization a more openly communicative, supportive place, you can reduce hostile interactions and hurt feelings. Psychological safety is a concept that can be used as guideline on how to create a save and supportive work environment.
Formalize important guidelines in organizational policies
However, as long as an organization’s policies reflect hostility or disinterest in workers’ wellbeing, a pressing threat to creativity will remain. You can overcome this risk by embedding the need for a fair and constructive collaboration in your organization's strategy.
Creativity and innovation is an important driver of organizational performance. However, there are some workplace factors that have the potential to undermine creativity and innovation. When you keep an eye on those factors your organization will benefit from it.
Innovation is discouraged when an organization is rigidly hierarchical, focused on short-term, deadlines, or filled with hostility
To reduce hierarchy, restructure your organization and reduce power imbalances, so that employees of all levels can collaborate and communicate
To reduce a short-term goal focus, evaluate employees’ in terms of their effort and adaptability, not their minute-by-minute success
To reduce workplace hostility, treat employees with kindness and respect, and practice active listening and emotional processing skills
Management skills newsletter
Join our monthly newsletter to receive management tips, tricks and insights directly into your inbox!
References and further readings
Ashkenas, R., Ulrich, D., Jick, T., & Kerr, S. (2015). The boundaryless organization: Breaking the chains of organizational structure. John Wiley & Sons.
Ceci, M. W., & Kumar, V. K. (2016). A correlational study of creativity, happiness, motivation, and stress from creative pursuits. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(2), 609-626.
Cortina, L. M., & Magley, V. J. (2009). Patterns and profiles of response to incivility in the workplace. Journal of occupational health psychology, 14(3), 272.
Creasey, G. (2002). Associations between working models of attachment and conflict management behavior in romantic couples. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 49(3), 365.
Lutgen‐Sandvik, P., Tracy, S. J., & Alberts, J. K. (2007). Burned by bullying in the American workplace: Prevalence, perception, degree and impact. Journal of Management Studies, 44(6), 837-862.
Naranjo-Valencia, J. C., Jiménez-Jiménez, D., & Sanz-Valle, R. (2016). Studying the links between organizational culture, innovation, and performance in Spanish companies. Revista Latinoamericana de Psicología, 48(1), 30-41.
Oreg, S., & Berson, Y. (2015). Personality and charismatic leadership in context: The moderating role of situational stress. Personnel Psychology, 68(1), 49-77.
Ozkaya, H. E., Droge, C., Hult, G. T. M., Calantone, R., & Ozkaya, E. (2015). Market orientation, knowledge competence, and innovation. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 32(3), 309-318.
Sanders, S., Wisse, B. M., & Van Yperen, N. W. (2015). Holding others in contempt: the moderating role of power in the relationship between leaders’ contempt and their behavior vis-à-vis employees. Business Ethics Quarterly, 25(2), 213-241.
Teece, D. J. (1996). Firm organization, industrial structure, and technological innovation. Journal of economic behavior & organization, 31(2), 193-224.
Tongchaiprasit, P., & Ariyabuddhiphongs, V. (2016). Creativity and turnover intention among hotel chefs: The mediating effects of job satisfaction and job stress. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 55, 33-40.
Vuori, T. O., & Huy, Q. N. (2016). Distributed attention and shared emotions in the innovation process: How Nokia lost the smartphone battle. Administrative Science Quarterly, 61(1), 9-51.
Wan, F., Williamson, P. J., & Yin, E. (2015). Antecedents and implications of disruptive innovation: Evidence from China. Technovation, 39, 94-104.
Dr. Devon Price is a social psychologist, writer, activist, and professor at Loyola University of Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Price’s work has appeared in numerous publications such as Slate, The Rumpus, NPR, and HuffPost and has been featured on the front page of Medium numerous times. They live in Chicago, Illinois.