7 Ways to Encourage Creativity & Innovation On Your Team

Written by
Dr. Nisha Cooch
Dr. Nisha Cooch

Usually when people think about innovation, they imagine really smart people inventing valuable products or coming up with disruptive ideas that make them famous, rich, or both. 💸

An innovative team can definitely lead to these kinds of outcomes, but having an innovative team also drives success by enabling you and your organization to adapt quickly to new challenges and to thrive in unforeseen scenarios

Innovating, even on a small scale but on a very regular basis, sets people and businesses apart from their competition. Employees that have the opportunity to innovate even tend to be more engaged workers and committed to their company’s mission.

Highly Engaged employees are 3x more likely to report working for an innovative organization than Actively Disengaged employees. 
Bonusly's 2019 Engagement and Modern Workplace Report

Unfortunately for employers, identifying creativity and innovative thinking during the hiring process can be difficult. We tend to look at resumes when evaluating job applicants, which gives us information about prior work experience and education. Interviews get us a bit closer, but many interview structures can be far from the kind of thinking and working an employee would do normally.

None of this information offers us much insight into someone’s capability for innovative thinking. 😅

To make matters even more complicated, even the most innovative people aren’t likely to be innovative in an environment that does not adequately encourage innovation. At the same time, claiming to be dedicated to innovation is not enough to actually foster innovation.  

Luckily, there are things you can do to promote innovation and enable your team members to make the most of their creative capabilities. By building the right habits in yourself and those you manage, you can significantly raise the chances that innovation happens and that it happens on a regular basis.

Here are 7 ways to ensure your team is innovative: 

1. Keep things fun. 

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Swedish researcher Göran Ekvall identified 10 climate dimensions that affect creativity in organizations. One of those dimensions is a company’s sense of humor and playfulness! A relaxed atmosphere with lots of laughter goes a long way in defining your company culture, and also encourages the freedom to be creative.

After all, when people feel stressed, their bodies release a hormone called cortisol. Most people know that cortisol is harmful to our health!  Cortisol makes it harder to concentrate and can lead to the brain fog that is commonly associated with fatigue or depression. 

Regardless of how intelligent, creative, or innovative someone is, if they are in a stressed state, chances are slim that their minds will work at an optimal level. It is for this reason that people who are feeling stressed or under pressure are not as good at solving complex problems.  

While your employees’ health may not seem like your problem, their mental status certainly affects you because it affects their performance. Stress on its own distracts from processes that are important for delivering projects successfully. So keep things fun and supportive, and you’ll start seeing the new ideas flow.

2. Build trust. 

It’s hard to be happy in a stressful work environment, and even tougher to feel committed to an organization’s mission when you don’t feel supported. If people don’t trust you or your organization, they are unlikely to focus their creative powers on how to drive your success. 

By treating people fairly and acknowledging their perspectives and preferences, you can help people to feel good about working with you and to have more loyalty toward you and to care about innovating for your organization.

3. Keep toxic people out. 

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Even if you do all you can to create a positive working environment and to garner loyalty from your employees, much of the positive influence of these efforts can be thwarted by a toxic person within your organization

Regardless of how much money these people bring in or who they’re connected to, toxic workers will cost you more than they are worth. 

There are several reasons for this, but one relevant phenomenon that is a trending topic of late is psychological safety. When people feel psychologically safe, or able to work without fear or unjust treatment or reproach, they are much more likely to have good ideas and to voice them. 

It only takes one toxic person to make people feel uncomfortable or timid, and toxic people tend to hinder not just one person within an organization but many. Firmly communicating your standards or letting these unsupportive and negative people go is a prerequisite to fostering innovation.

4. Encourage collaboration. 

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Just as bad people can squash innovation, good people working together can become greater than the sum of the parts. Smart, creative people brainstorming together can lead to new ideas as people are introduced to diverse perspectives and pushed to think more deeply. 

Another benefit of collaboration is that people with different skills and knowledge can figure out creative ways to combine their assets to solve problems. 

Some of your team members may be better at identifying the problem. Others may be skilled at determining which tools to use to address a problem, and others are best at communicating changes and gaining buy-in for new solutions. And others will be the ones to build the solution! 

By constantly interacting and sharing information, it’s likely that your employees create something new and valuable. 

5. Minimize bureaucracy. 

Bureaucracy can be a significant barrier to innovation within your organization. Not only can it prevent people with innovative ideas from being able to execute those ideas, but it can also inhibit innovative thinking itself. When people are forced to work within the confines of stringent rules—especially rules they do not agree with or do not understand—their ability to think freely and creatively is hindered. 

Depending on the nature of your organization, some amount of bureaucracy may be unavoidable. It’s important to think, though, about why a rule is a rule. If a rule is creating more blockers than it is streamlining a process, it can discourage creativity and speaking up. 

Bureaucracy is essentially the opposite of innovation—it requires people to operate within a box rather than encouraging people to break the box. 📦

6. Focus on psychological safety. 

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To think freely and express your ideas, you need to have good self-esteem. The same way that bureaucratic rules and toxic individuals can strangle innovation, so too can a lack of self-esteem that may occur even in the absence of bureaucracy or toxicity. 

It may not be anyone’s fault that a smart, creative employee lacks confidence, but you can do things to help boost your employees’ confidence and their potential to innovate. A great first place to start is by building a culture of psychological safety, where employees are supported—even if they fail.

Providing positive feedback and rewarding achievements can help employees build self-esteem. Use constructive feedback and be radically candid, rather than just presenting criticism, when employees need to improve their performance. This can also help protect against lowering people’s confidence and reducing the chances that they innovate within your organization. 

7. Recognize. 

When someone comes up with an excellent idea, you need to recognize them for it! 

Employee recognition and engagement go hand-in-hand, and it’s a combination of these factors that really boost innovative thinking. 

84% of Highly Engaged employees were recognized the last time they went above and beyond at work compared to only 25% of Actively Disengaged employees.
Bonusly's 2019 Engagement and Modern Workplace Report

It’s important to give recognition; it’s more important that the receiver feels recognized. Keep in mind that your coworkers may (and likely do) prefer to be recognized differently than you do. Giving employees the right feedback to know which of their efforts are most appreciated helps everyone better understand the impact of their work and what to prioritize.

Learn how your team prefers to be recognized, make them feel valued, and they’ll be encouraged to innovate. 

Key takeaway

Innovation cannot be forced, and even people capable of innovating only tend to do so when in the right environment. By hiring smart people and working to create a space in which they are comfortable and encouraged to think freely will increase the chances that innovation occurs within your organization.

For more strategies on how to build an excellent company culture, check out this resource: 

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Originally published on April 15, 2020 → Last updated October 28, 2020

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Dr. Nisha Cooch

Dr. Nisha Cooch holds a PhD in Neuroscience and specializes in mobilizing brain science to improve communications. She has worked with organizations ranging from Fortune 500s to startups and non-profits. In addition to conducting research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and serving as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the Executive Branch, Nisha has also worked on the agency side of Public Relations and is now a full-time independent consultant. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.

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