Want 21st Century innovation from your workers? Take a lesson from Ancient Greece

How can organisations encourage new workers to embrace the challenge to innovate? New research finds that managers’ expectations play a pivotal role. By Helena D. Cooper-Thomas, Jenny Chen and Gordon Cheung.

Innovate or die – it’s a common mantra within organisations, many of which increasingly rely on new ideas and approaches to survive in today’s fast-changing world.  

But for new employees facing the challenges of understanding and adapting to an unfamiliar workplace, the pressure to innovate may feel more like a threat than an opportunity to professionally shine. 

How, then, can organisations encourage new workers to embrace the challenge to innovate? Our research finds that managers’ expectations play a pivotal role. And while the call to innovate might live squarely in the 21st century, we also find that the power of one person to shape another harks back to Ancient Greece. 

In Ancient Greek mythology the King of Cyprus, Pygmalion, carved a statue of the perfect woman, Galatea, who then came to life. George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name adapts this story to tell of Henry Higgins turning Eliza Doolittle from cockney flower girl to refined lady. In essence, the Pygmalion effect describes how one person (the perceiver) has the power to shape another person (the target). This dynamic happens because the target deciphers the perceiver’s expectations and strives to meet them.  

Seen through this lens, the Pygmalion effect highlights how managers’ expectations can influence employee innovation within an organisation.

 Here, new employees are the “targets” working to decipher the expectations of the “perceiver” (in this case, their manager). 

We find that if a new employee thinks their manager expects and supports innovation, the new employee will strive to be innovative. There are several reasons why the managers’ expectations are so important. 

Firstly, while new employees may have the capacity to bring innovation based on their past work experiences, they are unlikely to engage in the risk-taking required for innovation without first determining if their manager values innovation.

Managers are critical for employees’ futures in the organisation, both within formal systems (eg, performance ratings, recommendations on bonuses, and references for promotions), as well as being part of all-important informal information flows that influence employees’ organisational careers. 

Additionally, the influence of managers was stronger on less confident new employees. In other words, we found that new employees who felt uncertain about their skills and experience were more malleable in responding to their managers’ expectations for creative and innovative work. 

High work autonomy and low work demands

New employees also heeded other cues in their new work environment.

They were more innovative when their role was designed in ways that enabled them to have sufficient scope to engage in innovation, through high work autonomy and low work demands. Employees with high work autonomy have considerable freedom in choosing which piece of work to prioritise and how to complete it. Our research showed that this level of autonomy provides sufficient freedom for innovation.  

In contrast, high work demands mean employees feel under pressure with inadequate time and resources to complete their work. In this capacity, “work demands” refer to employees’ workload, pressure and resources to complete work. 

Because high work demands absorb an employee’s time and energy, this leaves insufficient scope for innovation. Unsurprisingly, new employees experiencing low work demands reported greater innovation. 

The overarching message from our research is clear. Because managers are a key influence on new employees, particularly on those who are less confident in their new workplace, they need to provide consistent cues about their expectations. 

What does this look like from an organisational perspective? Here are a few recommendations to encourage and support innovation from new employees:  

  • Managers need to clearly communicate to new employees that they value and encourage innovation. 
  • New employees’ roles should be designed with sufficient autonomy (freedom) and slack (manageable work demands) to enable innovation.  
  • These “pro-innovation” conditions are particularly important for less confident new employees who will be alert to, and shaped by, their new work environment. 
  • Managers need training and support to provide clear and consistent cues to new employees about their expectations for innovation, and to maintain new employees’ job conditions to enable innovation. 

King Pygmalion and Henry Higgins were persistent and consistent in shaping Galatea and Eliza Doolittle, respectively, to meet their expectations. Organisations can similarly enable new employees to meet innovation expectations through their managers’ actions: consistent, innovation-supporting cues emphasise to newcomers that innovation is encouraged and valued and will help yield the higher levels of innovation so necessary in today’s fast-changing society.

By: Helena D. Cooper-Thomas (AUT Business School) and Jenny Chen (Faculty of Business and Law, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK), and Gordon Cheung (University of Auckland Business School) 

See the article: Cue consistency matters: how and when newcomers respond to supervisor creativity expectations (The International Journal of Human Resource Management) 

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