How Stifled Innovation Stifles Employee Engagement

Though it’s not the most important driver of employee engagement, a lot of academic research draws an important link between engagement and innovation. It’s a chicken and egg phenomenon. If your organization increases or improves overall employee engagement so goes the level of innovation; if your organization supports and celebrates innovation overall employee engagement climbs.

In TalentMap’s benchmark database of more than a million employees from organizations across the U.S. and Canada.

  • The top 10% of organizations with high (89%) levels of engagement score about 80% on innovation statements
  • The remaining 90% score about 66% on innovation statements
  • Some 75% of respondents from these top 10% organizations agree with the statement “there is a culture of innovation at this organization”
  • For the remaining 90% of organizations, only half of people (52%) think there’s a culture of innovation.
  • employee engagement innovation

    Why are so many organizations struggling with innovation and employee engagement?

    Pouring over engagement survey results and comments day after day, TalentMap has boiled it down to two principal factors.

    The first is “Blame” culture.  This is the kind of work environment that tolerates finger pointing; where employees are blamed for taking chances or reprimanded for making mistakes. The second is “Because” culture (“…because we’ve always done it that way”). Alone or in combination, these two cultures have a detrimental effect on innovation and employee engagement.

    How to recognize “Blame” culture

    TalentMap has published an employee engagement book 'for Dummies'. One of the quotes cited comes from a gentleman by the name of Bob Kelleher: “Unfortunately, many leaders fail to create a safe environment for employees to contribute ideas. Worse, they create an environment in which new ideas are met with rejection.” Why is this happening? Organizations don’t as a rule, want to squash innovation. What’s going on in “Blame” culture?

  • Managers and employees typically avoid taking responsibility or initiative
  • Mistakes are hidden (from fear of repercussions) and damage escalates
  • Organizations become stifled and slow because of so many cautionary checks and balances
  • Micro-management is rampant; control is seen as necessary to avoid being blamed for mistakes
  • Managers rationalize this behavior by (what else) blaming “demanding” superiors, customers and stakeholders.
  • The consequences of playing the Blame game? Ultimately there’s no environment for ideas. Employees don’ feel heard. They disengage.  The engaged leave.

    What “Because” culture looks like

    “Leadership teams that want to kill employee engagement and initiative should simply tell employees that they can't do something “because that's not how we do it here” or “because we've tried that before” or “because management will never accept that” or “because it isn't policy,” Kelleher notes.  If your organization has a “Because” culture:

  • Leaders have built a successful organization and resultantly, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo
  • Leaders (firmly, but falsely) believe that what got them success will provide continued success
  • Leaders surround themselves with people who think like them (yes-folk).
  • The consequences in this set of circumstances? Empirical evidence shows “Because” organizations have slower growth and lower client satisfaction. But ultimately and once again, there’s no environment for ideas.  Employees do not feel heard.  They disengage.  The engaged leave.

    Two distinct cultures, two different causes not always symbiotic, but the effects remain the same: innovation is stifled and stifled innovation smothers engagement.

    employee engagement innovation stifled

    Turn engagement into innovation

    by using innovation to engage

    In interviews and conversations with the top 10% of engaged organizations, TalentMap has observed:

    Mistakes happen every day in every organization.
    Move from “Blame” to responsibility:

    1. Actively support someone who has made a mistake
    2. Coach and lead by example to focus discussions on the future, not the past.
    3. Praise the employee for coming forward (time, $)
    4. Publicly recognize and reward honesty and forthrightness that minimizes consequences of error
    5. Support and provide help.


    1. How did that happen?
    2. Who was responsible?
    3. Why did they (not) let that happen?

    MOVE TO:

    1. Never mind who’s fault it was.
    2. What do we do now?
    3. How do we make it right?
    4. How do we minimize damage?
    5. How do we learn and not let it happen again?

    Move from “Because” to “why not”:

    1. Frame responses and behaviors more positively. Rather than saying “it won’t work” or “yes, but…” shift to
      • “Why not?!”
      • “Yes, and…”
    2. Enforce crowdsourcing innovation (think virtual suggestion box)

    One of TalentMap’s clients has had dramatic results by adopting an internal social networking platform (Yammer), then throwing out a problem, crowdsourcing ideas within the organization and tasking an innovation working group to pick out and champion the best ideas.


    1. Incentivize; publicly reward and recognize innovations and improvements
    2. Make examples of and institutionalize these behaviors

    And remember: it helps if the CEO and senior leaders model and mentor these new behaviors.

    Improve employee engagement in your organization!

    Employee Engagement Library

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