Innovation — Building a Supportive Corporate Culture

by Cynthia on July 6, 2010

Confidence and innovation, or fear and immobilization—what’s the corporate culture where you work?

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times reminded me how damaging a culture of fear can be. The article described obstacles the Russian government is facing in creating a Silicon Valley-like environment near Moscow. The government’s desire for this to happen is present. The space is present, the funding is present, even the technologically educated workforce is present. Yet one key ingredient is lacking. An entrepreneurial, innovative business environment can never grow in the midst of a culture of fear like the one pervading Russia today.

Innovation and fear do not mix

This is true for businesses as well as for countries: Innovation and fear do not mix. Actually, organizational effectiveness and fear don’t mix, period! W. Edwards Deming famously pointed this out decades ago when he stated that data can never be trusted in organizations that are rife with fear. Without valid data, informed decisions cannot be made, and excellence can never be achieved. And when employees work in a culture of fear and uncertainty, they are not motivated to raise issues, think creatively, propose solutions, collaborate, or take risks.

Leaders must create a culture of confidence—But how?

Shaping a company’s culture—the context for innovation, excellence, and high performing teamwork—is the leader’s responsibility. Yet, we have found that many leaders are uncertain about how to create a culture of confidence.

Most people realize that a leader who is arbitrary, autocratic and vindictively punitive will sow a culture of fear and cannot lead an organization to greatness. However, some “enlightened” executives mistakenly imagine that for a leader to inspire he or she must be positive, upbeat and supportive all the time. Some even believe that leaders should give a great deal of praise, but very few critiques, to those who work for them.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A leader who never critiques his staff can end up with a group of direct reports who feel insecure and uncertain of where they stand. A leader who fails to acknowledge difficult realities of the marketplace, or who fails to give tough feedback, eventually comes to be mistrusted.

Three steps towards building confidence

Fortunately, we’ve found that creating an atmosphere of confidence is not a mysterious process. Here are three specific steps you can take:

  1. Tell them what you want: Be clear about roles and responsibilities for your direct reports, and provide specific high standards of performance.
  2. Support them: Be sure your direct reports have the information, materials, access, and other resources they need to do their jobs.
  3. Provide feedback: Make it a habit to provide the frequent, real-time feedback—critiques as well as praise—your direct reports need in order to perform at their highest level.

How would you describe your culture? Is it supportive of confidence and innovation, or is there work to be done to get there? If you would like to learn more about providing feedback or creating a culture of confidence, just give us a call: (202) 237-5610.

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