Understanding the Source of Employee Innovation

Boredom is one of those facets of life that consistently amaze. How can any person be bored when there is so much around us that stimulates our intellect and inspires our awe? And why do we continuously and mindlessly scroll through television channels and facebook feeds instead of focusing our energy on creating something of beauty or value?

Boredom persists. In the workplace, we call this phenomenon, disengagement. All managers dread this and go to great lengths to improve engagement in the workplace. Whether it’s motivating staff, reaching customers, or simply having a conversation, employers want engaging interactions. They crave opinions and other forms of employee feedback, especially when those choice pieces of feedback help to directly further company goals.

The dilemma is, how do managers create engagement? Employees can’t be beaten with sticks (you can try but your HR team will likely frown upon it). You can’t yell at people to not be bored or to focus more.

No, the secret to employee engagement is curiosity and challenge. When people are challenged, their minds will naturally start formulating solutions. We call this, creativity. Marketing people call it, innovation. What follows are a few pieces of advice to encourage innovation (or creativity) from your employees.

Engagement Powers Activate!

Each day, we are flooded with information and stimuli. Take, for example, that little number in the corner of your inbox that numbers emails in the thousands or tens of thousands. Those are pieces of information that we have to analyze, prioritize and process. Our brains sort this information into two buckets — interesting and unworthy.

We actually have a dedicated neural network that manages this process which is called, The Reticular Activating System (RAS).  The RAS has two main functions; 1) highlighting relevant information in real time, and 2) stimulating pattern recognition to fuel innovative thinking.

In terms of our biology, the RAS monitors our shift between rest and wakefulness. Functionally, as it applies to how we communicate and perform throughout the day, the RAS determines whether we should tune stimuli out or tune them in.

Recognizing how the RAS functions provides an opportunity to improve engagement in the workplace. It can help us determine how we communicate and how often. Should we send someone thirty emails or have a ten minute conversation?

Are people falling asleep in meetings? If they look disengaged or bored, they are tuning you out. That means it’s time to change the content or format of your meeting. When people are engaged, they are attentive and responsive in meetings. They inspired to be more creative in their tasks and find new ways to accomplish their goals.

Reinforcing Engagement

Useful information activates the RAS to pay attention. When new or interesting information is in front of us, we focus. When that moment passes in a meeting, and we are told information that is irrelevant or that we already know, our RAS prompts us to disengage.

The best way to engage employees is to give them something that inspires curiosity. Being told a statement requires no thought on the part of the person to whom information is being conveyed. Being asked a question, though, prompts us to think about the answer.

The more questions we ask others, the more that they feel engaged – and that engagement persists over time as long as the questions remain pertinent. A question becomes part of our subconscious, and as time goes on, we are drawn to information that relates to what we were asked.

Leading Staff to Innovate

People managers can use the Reticular Activating Systems of their employees to engage staff in positive directions for the company. But do people always view the company’s success as their own success? How can you keep your staff focused and have them care about outcomes?

One way is to engage your staff by enrolling them in creating their own personal quarterly objectives that are tied to the quarterly objectives of the team and the company.

Another way to engage your staff is to move them away from a focus on individual success and towards a focus on success for the team. You can ask them what can be done to improve a situation and encourage them to crowdsource ideas from the rest of the staff. People who are challenged and curious and who are working towards a collective goal are more likely to innovate, instead of just passively doing their jobs.

Finally, let them know that their ideas have value through consistent recognition and reward.

Companies can provide personal incentives (a bonus or recognition of a job well done) to motivate individual participation. Employees learn that contributing to the company’s success will produce personal success for them as well.

Low employee engagement continues to baffle Human Resource professionals, middle managers, and company leaders the world over. But the solution is really not that complicated. Pay attention to employees and notice when they tune out and when they tune in. Then ask questions to keep them curious and challenge them so that their natural propensity towards innovation remains activated.

This blog is a guest post by David Mizne, Content Strategist of 15five

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