Why I Don’t Innovate at Work

I almost envied the speaker as he delivered his erudite commentary on stage. I wasn’t in the audience at TED, but rather listening to a slightly nerdy 11-year-old explain his science project to an audience of his peers while his mother hovered nearby. The kids sitting around me were whispering and giggling. They were annoyed by him. But I thought: Lucky, lucky guy.

True he probably gets tormented by his peers every day, but I could guess from his joyful confidence that he has transcended a barrier that prevents a whole lot of people, myself included, from creating or doing anything really exceptional: the fear of others’ opinions.

This fear is very real. For example, I often wonder: What will people think of the fact that the treadmill at the gym shows I’m running at only 6.5 miles per hour? Worse, what will they think of the show I’m watching? The erudite 11-year-old prompted me to reflect on the extent to which most of us shape our lives according to what others think of us. Or, rather, might think of us, if they thought of us at all, which of course they probably don’t.

We relentlessly work to avoid “image risks,” to borrow a term from business researchers Feirong Yuan of the University of Kansas and Richard W. Woodman of Texas A&M. They use the phrase in their study of employees’ fear of making “unfavorable social impressions” on coworkers. In an analysis of responses from 425 employees in a variety of U.S. businesses, Yuan and Woodman found that worries about image risk significantly diminish employees’ innovativeness.

“For an employee who works on a job that does not normally ask for innovativeness (e.g., a blue-collar worker whose job is assembling furniture), if he has an innovative suggestion for a new work procedure, he may be afraid to express it because of the concern that his coworkers (and supervisors) might think he is stepping out of line,” Yuan explained to me. Not even a solid and trusting relationship with a supervisor mitigates this problem, she and Woodman report in an upcoming issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

That’s sad. It’s sad for employees and it’s sad for companies. Everyday innovation by ordinary workers should be organizations’ lifeblood. I’m no different from the people in the study. I’m just as unwilling to upset the status quo as they are.

There are a couple of things managers can do, Yuan and Woodman say. One is to create a culture in which everyone understands that being innovative is a desirable image. That’s easier said than done, however. Another, more concrete, suggestion is to “break job position stereotypes” by rewriting job descriptions to include a requirement that employees contribute new ideas. Such a straightforward approach might help employees get over their socially induced hesitation, the research suggests.

I’ve noticed that those of us who resist innovating for fear of others’ opinions are sometimes quickest to point a finger at the innovators among us. We’re the grown-up equivalents of the whisperers and gigglers, the perpetrators of negative peer pressure. We have an obligation to be aware of that tendency. If we won’t innovate, we should at least make every effort to cut some slack to the coworker with the oddball ideas, even if he’s sometimes a little too nerdy and a little too insistent. Now that would be an innovation.


10 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Innovate at Work

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