Innovation Requires Trust

All of us have long since grown accustomed to management by exception, that time-honored approach that only notices things that are unusually good or bad (usually bad). When everything is happening as expected, nothing is said, but managers immediately notice any problems.

Employees quickly figure out that when management wants to know something, it’s not good. That’s because things that are normal attract no attention, and things that are exceptionally good prompt no questions. If any praise is forthcoming, it’s because management somehow already knows about something good. All too many managers would never bother to ask questions for that purpose.

So, questions almost always precede some sort of blame. Thus, the natural reaction to any request for information is suspicion and resistance if not outright fear. Given a choice, employees will simply withhold information or provide information that isn’t entirely accurate or complete.

If someone wants access to my calendar, they must not approve of how I’m spending my time. If they want to see my expenditures, they must think I’m a spend thrift. If they want to know how my people are spending their time, they must think I have too many. If they want to know how many sales calls I’ve made or closed, they must think it’s not enough. What they don’t know can’t hurt me.

The most obvious problem with this dynamic is that it makes it so difficult for managers to accurately gauge what’s really happening. All that’s left is the financial numbers. They’re certainly important, but in this sort of low-trust environment there’s great temptation to “game” even the numbers.

When that starts to happen, management tightens up on the scorekeeping and ultimately you end up with all the power concentrated in the hands of the proverbial bean counters.

Just a parable? Hardly. It’s arguably true to varying degrees in every business organization, and when and where it is, it’s a stake through the heart of innovation.

Without a robust and candid exchange of information, no one has reliable feedback. No one is in a position to put all the pieces together and accurately identify strengths and weaknesses. No one can fully measure performance good or bad and identify opportunities for improvement.

To create a healthy culture for innovation, one of the first things that needs to happen is to start coaching instead of penalizing those who provide information. So that people with performance problems get help instead of blame. So that providing information becomes a means of enhancing personal success, rather than a risk to it. So that people trust your intentions.

As long as providing information is risky, innovation will always be at risk.

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