ATD Blog

The Boss is an Innovation Killer -- Not an Innovation Leader


New research from DDI paints a picture of leaders overconfident in their skills at promoting innovation; less than half of employees think their boss is consistently open to unique ideas and opinions; almost 1 in 3 suspect their creative ideas will be killed by organizational bureaucracy
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

PITTSBURGH—Employees are pointing fingers at their leaders for squashing innovation, according to new research from Development Dimensions International (DDI). Unfortunately, leaders think they’re doing much better than employees do when it comes to leading innovation.

In “Creating the Conditions for Sustainable Innovation: The Leadership Imperative”, DDI surveyed 513 leaders and 514 employees (with no direct reports) from organizations in a variety of sizes and industries to understand how leaders and employees view innovation in their organization.

Among the major findings was a significant gap between how leaders see themselves—and how employees see them—as nurturers of innovation. The findings of the study include:
Think differently. Or not. Using a 20-item leadership innovation index, DDI measured how successful leaders are at promoting innovation in four major challenges (inspiring curiosity, challenging current perspectives, creating freedom and driving discipline) and found that there was a gap between leaders’ inflated perceptions of how they are doing and what employees were actually observing.  The greatest gap between where leaders thought they were successful and where employees agreed was 29% in challenging current perspectives. The research also showed that leaders are lacking in behaviors including unwavering openness to and appreciation of unique ideas and opinions (35% gap), championing the merits of employee-generated ideas to senior management (33%) and guiding employees to pursue ideas autonomously (32% gap).

“Leaders were far more confident in their skills across the board—but employees really felt that there really wasn’t room to challenge the status quo,” Rich Wellins, Senior Vice President of DDI, said.


Is talk of innovation just lip service? When asked where their organization was on an innovation continuum, 39% of employees said that innovation is either a long shot for their company or a mere “buzz word” the company would like to embrace. However, most leaders’ perceptions (74%) are that it is either an important priority or an absolute imperative for the company.

“This perception gap is dangerous because the organization’s attitude toward innovation is a crucial factor, and if employees aren’t seeing it, there probably is an alignment issue with in the organization’s strategy,” Wellins said. When organizational commitment is rated high, both leaders and employees rate the leader behaviors as far higher, almost eliminating the gap in their views of how leaders are doing.


Big ideas, no action.  When asked what would generate more breakthrough ideas, leaders’ first choice was to urge employees to expand their understanding of business trends and emerging issues. While employees agreed, they also reported that they would have more breakthrough ideas if their leaders created abundant opportunities to take action on their big ideas.
Idea killers. While half of employees feel their boss is supportive of making their ideas happen, almost 1 in 3 still feel their creative ideas will be killed by organizational bureaucracy.

When you ask leaders, 35% feel that the greatest barrier to innovation is their employees don’t have enough information about the business to offer ideas of value. On the other hand, employees’ top responses are that they believe their boss wants to be the person who generates all great ideas (28%), and that new ideas aren’t welcome and the organization is stuck on how things get done (25%). “Leaders need to be ‘idea welcomers’ not ‘door shutters’,” Wellins said. “A culture of innovation will support ideas coming from any individual, any level and sometimes from unusual places in the organization.”
Throw stereotypes out the window. When we look at generational and gender labels, some of the common beliefs are that young leaders will take more risks, younger employees will have higher expectations of their leaders when it comes to innovation and that female leaders are more risk-averse than their male peers. However, none of these stereotypes played out in the results of the research.

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