Want More Creative Employees? Look to Your Company's Management

 

Takeaway

  • Companies should provide managers with the incentive, power, and resources to turn their employee’s creative ideas into reality
  • Workers who provide creative ideas to management, but never see those ideas carried out, can become demoralized.
  • In lieu of increased pay, managers need to figure out what motivates their team members to provide creative ideas.

Does your company aim to innovate? Then you’ll need to address your organization’s management.

Corporate innovation begins at the top. Experts say companies need to provide their managers with the incentive, power, and resources to turn their employee’s creative ideas into reality. “If a company really wants to do this and do it right, you have to think about the entire system that is the organization and make sure you’re properly thinking about the innovation process at every step,” says Ethan Burris, associate professor of management at the McCombs School of Business. “Not just idea generation, but the implementation part as well.”

Asking for Ideas

Employees may be the ones providing fresh ideas, such as for new products or ways to improve the business, but it’s up to managers to turn those ideas into reality. As a manager, “when you’re soliciting ideas, and creative ideas, you’re soliciting ideas for new stuff to do,” says Burris. That’s a task not all managers will necessarily welcome. Managers are busier than hell, all the time. And the last thing that they’re really looking for is more problems to solve,” Burris says. “They have enough stuff on their plate right now.”

Burris says he’s seen workers who submit their ideas to managers but never see their ideas carried out become cynical about the process. “If you don’t follow all the way through, and you dangle that carrot out for employees to see as a beacon of hope to get things changed and then nothing does, it’s completely demoralizing” for workers, Burris says.

Instead of innovation, you get overburdened managers and discouraged employees. In essence, “the whole thing blows up,” Burris says. 

Therefore, if innovation truly matters to a company, it should give its managers not only the time, but also the incentive, power, and resources they require to help implement new ideas. That starts with discussions at the highest levels of a company, Burris says. “It’s not just making sure that certain managers are incented to implement; it’s making sure that their definitions of what’s a success — of what’s a good idea for a particular problem — are internally aligned,” he says. “That’s a huge conversation to have ahead of time. I don’t think a lot of organizations really think about that up front.”  

Communicating with Creative Workers

Conversations can’t only happen among executives. For creative ideas to flow, effective communication also needs to take place at the lower levels of an organization, with managers who really hear what their employees are saying. 

That may be especially necessary for teams of creative workers. Advertising agencies are a perfect example. Managers need to “understand the motivation of your creative team, because ultimately they speak another language,” says Suzi Brown, BBA '96, MBA '04, who worked closely with creative teams at firms including Bromley Communications, Wunderman, Grey Worldwide, and Digitas.

But it’s not only “creative” industries that benefit from listening to employee ideas. “Most companies want to innovate on some level. It’s pretty rare for an industry to be completely stable and static,” Burris says. “You want some element of adaptability, which means you want people to be engaged and thinking about creative solutions to problems that they see.”  

Regardless of their industry, managers shouldn’t expect employee motivation to necessarily take the form of money. For starters, it is unlikely managers will be able to pay workers more for their ideas, since very few companies directly reward creativity through employee salaries or bonuses. Among firms that consider non-financial measures in their annual bonus formulas, only 6.1 percent considered new product development, while just 2.6 percent considered innovation measures, according to “The Choice of Performance Measures in Annual Bonus Contracts,” a paper featured in the April 1997 issue of the Accounting Review.

Additionally, paying your employees more may not produce the desired results: Research conducted by McCombs accounting Professors Steven Kachelmeier and Michael Williamson shows that rather than encouraging more creative ideas, paying workers for better ideas actually stifles their creativity. (For more on their research, see “Quantity Over Quality: Why You Shouldn't Pay Workers to be Creative.”)

“We like to think that whatever you want, just kick people enough, or pay people enough, and they’ll do it,” Kachelmeier says. “It’s not always true.”

Instead of simply handing out wads of cash, effective managers need to listen well. “Good managers and leaders will figure out what motivates their team members individually,” says Marissa Jarratt, BBA 1999, MBA 2004, a senior director of marketing at PepsiCo - Frito Lay. For example, certain employees may care about winning awards (such as Cannes Lions), while other workers may want recognition within their company, and still others simply want to please a client, Jarratt says.

And although a single creative idea may not result in a larger paycheck, both Brown and Jarratt agree that creative employees whose ideas produce results for their employer do get promoted. Employees who produce excellent work move “through the ranks quicker,” Brown says.

That career advancement could turn today’s creative employees into tomorrow’s successful managers.

Faculty in this Article

Ethan Burris

Associate Professor of Management McCombs School of Business

Ethan Burris studies dispute resolution, decision making, organizational behavior and learning. His recent research projects focus on issues...

Ethan Burris teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

Michael Williamson

Associate Professor of Accounting McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin

Michael G. Williamson, associate professor of accounting, received his B.S. from Louisiana State University and his Ph.D. from Indiana University...

Steven Kachelmeier

Professor of Accounting McCombs School of Business

Steven J. Kachelmeier, Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting, received his B.B.A. from the University of New Mexico and his Ph.D. from the...

About The Author

Jeremy Simon

Writer, McCombs School of Business

As a writer for Texas Enterprise, Jeremy covers business-related research and news from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition, he manages...

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