We need team leaders to be creative and innovative. Let’s support them.
In an era that prizes creativity and innovation to provide fresh solutions to difficult challenges, we should consider the mixed signals we send to team leaders.
“Novel ideas have almost no upside for a middle manager—almost none,” asserts Jennifer Mueller, a professor of management at the University of San Diego. “The goal of a middle manager is meeting metrics of an existing paradigm.” 1
Mueller is quoted in a New York Times adaptation of a new book, Inspired: Understanding Creativity. A Journey Through Art, Science, and Soul, by Matt Richtel. Richtel is assessing our confused relationship with creativity, which we laud and covet on the one hand and are repelled by on the other.
The team leader—often a middle manager, as described by Mueller—can be caught twice in this conundrum—once, because subconscious reactions to creativity can be surprisingly negative, and again because we tend not to reward innovation by those in the middle of the organizational pack.
And yet, innovation and creativity are seen as ways to prevail in competitive conditions, as well as to address thorny, seemingly intractable challenges.
What is a team leader to do—and where is there a place for creativity in their portfolio?
Our strange relationship with creativity
Richtel’s exploration of creativity uncovers sobering findings.
“Research has found that we actually harbor an aversion to creators and creativity,” Richtel writes. “[S]ubconsciously, we see creativity as noxious and disruptive, and as a recent study demonstrated, this bias can potentially discourage us from undertaking an innovative project or hiring a creative employee.”
Among other revelations, Richtel exposes the connection between innovation and uncertainty. One study he quotes found that people can be repelled by innovation “because it can intensify feelings of uncertainty.”
Professor Mueller confirms that from her own research. “We have an implicit bias that the status quo is safe,” she says.
This research highlights an important consideration: Innovation and creativity mean change. Change can threaten us. We say we want something different, but by and large we prefer what’s known and familiar.
So when organizational leaders announce that they want to make change happen, those charged to replace current processes, priorities, and ways of thinking with new ones may react with denial and resistance.
Team leaders can find themselves in the crosshairs—they are tasked to make an innovation come to life, and yet may be surrounded by subconscious (and even overt) signals to the contrary.
We tend not to ask team leaders to innovate
On top of our confused relationship with creativity, we too often don’t think that team leaders should innovate in the first place.
Mueller’s quotation about the lack of upside for creative (a.k.a. disruptive) middle managers harkens back to both industrial and hierarchical models of management, where team leaders are semi-powerless enablers of established processes and outputs. Traditionally, such middle managers are tasked to focus on execution: Ensure that the widgets are produced on time and on budget, and you will be rewarded for such. Leave the innovation to the R&D team or top leadership.
That mental model of the team leader disrespects the challenging and complex work that managers at all levels must attend to, especially today.
And, in moments of crisis, we see just how important team leaders are—and how their ability to create and innovate can save the organization. Exhibit A is the COVID-19 pandemic, where team leaders in corporations and nonprofit organizations across the globe threw out old ways of working to respond to urgent and new needs of their customers amid a worldwide lockdown. Team leaders could make that happen because they were closest to the action in their organization, and had direct knowledge that more senior leaders lacked.
In fact, team leaders are rich resources to help organizations innovate—and they can help to manage change within their teams so creative ideas can take root.
Thinking of team leaders as innovators who deserve support
In my blog Team Leaders are Leaders as Well as Managers I argue that we should retire old ways of thinking about middle managers and treat them as they leaders they are. By doing so, we can liberate our expectations for this vital organizational role, and incorporate healthy creativity into the job descriptions alongside requirements for effective execution.
Here are examples of areas within a team where the team leader can innovate:
- New ways to maximize team engagement
- New approaches to processes to increase efficiency and lower costs
- New uses of technology to make teamwork better
- New methods to attract, retain, and advance team talent
- New ideas to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the team
- New applications of hybrid work arrangements to maximize productivity and work-life balance
Here are examples of how a team leader can innovate across the organization:
- New ways to improve collaboration and coordination with other teams
- New approaches to value propositions for internal and external customers
- New ideas about organizational culture
- New methods to create efficiencies
- New uses of data and analytics to drive better cross-team decision-making
These small, incomplete lists remind us that in today’s competitive, fast-changing landscape, team leaders should be encouraged to innovate and create, and that there are ample opportunities for both within their spheres of control and influence.
The team leader as change agent to make innovation work
Matt Richtel’s cautions about our confused relationship with innovation and creativity presents yet another opportunity for team leaders.
Because they are close to the daily work of their teams, and because they are likely to know their team members well, team leaders are perfectly positioned to manage the change requirements that accompany innovation.
Aversion to innovation manifests as denial and resistance to change. Team leaders who know basic techniques in change management can work with team members to help them embrace changes, applying tailored recipes for each individual as required.
Because teams are smaller than whole organizations, they can be nimbler, and team leaders can devise change methods to propel innovations within the smaller worlds of their teams. Get enough individual teams to adopt innovations and the changes that come with them, and larger innovations can take hold across the organization.
For team leaders to innovate well, they need support
Team leaders should not be left on their own if top leaders want to extract the benefits of innovation at the team level. Senior leaders should provide team leaders with:
- Direct and active championship of team-level innovations
- Training and coaching in innovation and change-management practices
- Reward structures that turn pronouncements about innovation and change into practical incentives for teams and team leaders
- Updated team-leader job descriptions that place innovation and creativity on par with execution.
We may have a mixed relationship with creativity and innovation, but we need both today to address the substantial challenges that organizations face. Team leaders can be vital agents to create new solutions and bring them to life—if we support them to do so.
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