How Do Creative Ideas Get Heard?

Imagine you are an employee at a widget-making factory. Sitting at your desk one day, you have an epiphany: You’ve thought of a new way to create widgets that should increase production by threefold. But will your supervisor be supportive of your new idea, or will it be cast aside without due consideration? In a 2015 article published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, Roy B. L. Sijbom (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands), Onne Janssen (University of Groningen, The Netherlands), and Nico W. Van Yperen (University of Groningen, The Netherlands) examined when and why leaders support radical creative ideas voiced by their subordinates.

While creative ideas often challenge a company’s current framework and routines, they also provide material for innovation and development, both of which are especially important in today’s dynamic global market. Leaders are often the gatekeepers to creative ideas. They can support a new idea and help it blossom, or they can never let it see the light of day. Their unique role makes it critical, from a business standpoint, to understand what factors influence a leader’s willingness to support creative ideas from employees.

One such factor can be the leader’s own achievements, goals, and motivations. Leaders who have performance-approach goals are focused on demonstrating superior competence compared with others. These leaders may view proven company frameworks as evidence of their own capabilities and thus may be more likely to dismiss new ideas in favor of the status quo. Leaders who have mastery-approach goals are focused on acquiring new skills and competencies and thus may be more likely to eschew the norm and view creative ideas as chances to learn new talents or procedures.

A second factor that may influence how creative ideas are received is the way they are presented to superiors (i.e., whether they are presented in an aggressive or a considerate manner).

The authors examined how these two factors influence the adoption of radical creative ideas in a series of three studies. In the first study, supervisors completed a survey assessing their performance- and mastery-goals before being asked to think about a time when a subordinate presented them with a creative idea that challenged their current practices and procedures. The supervisors then were asked to report their response to the idea. The authors found that performance goals were related to rejecting radical creative ideas while mastery goals were related to accepting them.

In a second study, participants, read a scenario in which they were a marketing supervisor assigned to market a new product and were pitched several traditional marketing options by subordinates as well as a radical creative marketing option. The researchers manipulated whether participants adopted a performance or mastery orientation by stressing aspects of the company’s culture — and aspects of the leaders’ goals — that emphasized competition and competence (performance orientation) or the development of new abilities (mastery orientation). The researchers found that leaders with a performance orientation were more likely to oppose radical creative ideas than were mastery-oriented leaders, and mastery-oriented leaders were more likely to support radical creative ideas than were performance-oriented leaders. Explorative interest (i.e., desire to seek out information) was found to mediate the relationship between leaders’ goal orientations and their acceptance of radical ideas.

A third study followed the pattern of the second experiment but added a factor: The radical creative idea was presented in either an aggressive or a considerate manner. The researchers found that leaders with a mastery orientation were equally likely to accept radical ideas, regardless of how they were presented, but performance-oriented leaders were more likely to accept radical ideas presented in a considerate manner.

Organizations benefit when leaders are able to recognize and utilize creative talent. These findings suggest that businesses seek out and promote mastery orientations in their leaders, and also show subordinates how to present their ideas in a way that avoids aggression and maximizes consideration.

Reference

Sijbom, R. B., Janssen, O., & Van Yperen, N. W. (2015). How to get radical creative ideas into a leader’s mind? Leader’s achievement goals and subordinates’ voice of creative ideas. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 24, 279–296.

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