Last week, the Wall Street Journal had a section devoted to HR with several good articles, but one in particular caught my attention – “The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain.” The author explained that much of what we believe about how good managers “think” is incorrect. Here are his theories:
- Want innovation? Be wary of deadlines
- Big unknowns lead to bad choices
- Good thinkers look past the facts
- Leaders should stay positive
The first is counter-intuitive. As a “last minute Lucy” when I was in college with term papers, I always thought I did my best work under pressure. What the study shows is that we don’t access the creative parts of our brain under pressure and instead go to “what we know.” This leads to less innovative solutions than if we had a little more time. I do not, (nor does the author), advocate that there should not be deadlines. The key is not to enforce unrealistic ones or to encourage people to wait to the last minute to complete a project. You won’t get their best work.
The second theory that “big unknowns lead to bad choices,” is actually very true. Just take a look at any of the recent projects your company has completed. The bigger the unknowns probably meant there was more risk. Uncertainty and risk leads employees to make the “safe” choice rather than the innovative choice. So minimize the unknowns before you start a project. It will engender more creative thinking from your team.
The next one, “good thinkers look past the facts,” is also counter-intuitive. We have been taught that great leaders and thinkers are like Joe Friday – “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In fact they lean on emotion more often than they do facts. Intuition plays a big role in what they ultimately decide, and it makes the outcomes more innovative because they’ve considered all the elements, not just the tangible ones. This might be why women sometimes make better managers when they have accessed their intuition and learned how to use emotions effectively in the work place.
The last one, “leaders should stay positive,” debunks the notion of the hard-charging executive who forges ahead regardless of who is trampled in the process. We’ve all seen the leader who rages when something doesn’t go well and doesn’t care who hears them. People are inspired when their leader is actually positive, not just during a “kumbaya” moment, but someone who can actually lead without yelling, berating or frightening the team. If you want innovation, you can’t have fear and a positive leader let’s the fear dissipate from the environment. This is not to say that accountability is not present, it’s just not dealt with in a threatening manner.
Take a look at your leadership style and the level of innovation at your company. If there is a problem, try some of the leadership approaches above and see what results you get. People need to feel safe to be at their most creative so the carrot is almost always better than the stick. Make your workplace safe, the result will be innovation, and the rewards will be yours.