Are you really encouraging your employees to think innovatively?

by Ella Hafermalz (Postdoctoral Researcher in Business Information Systems and Sessional Lecturer in Talent Management, The University of Sydney Business School)

Managers across Australia recognize that innovative thinking is increasingly a key to competitive advantage. Even our Prime Minister is on board with the innovation ideal. But how can we encourage employees to think more innovatively?

Managers often say they want more innovative thinking, but then inadvertently reinforce the status quo. To explore this contradiction further, I’ll introduce you to a maturity framework from psychology that has been used in education. The “Six Levels” in this model show different reasons for why we behave the way we do. Level 1 is the most simplistic reasoning for behavior and Level 6 is the most complex:

“The Six Levels”

  1. Level: I Don’t Want to Get in Trouble
  2. Level: I Want a Reward
  3. Level: I Want to Please Somebody
  4. Level: I Follow the Rules
  5. Level: I Am Considerate of Other People
  6. Level: I Have a Personal Code of Behaviour and I Follow It (the Atticus Finch level)

(From Esquith, 2007 based on Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development)

This model is used to get teachers to reflect on what kind of thinking they are encouraging in the classroom. Teachers can (inadvertently) encourage students to follow Level 1-4 thinking. For example: “be quiet or you’ll get detention” (Level 1) “we’ll have cake if you all do your homework” (Level 2) “I agree with your argument, good work” (Level 3) or “sorry, those are the rules” (Level 4). While the reasoning captured in these statements is inevitably going to play some role in our education, this lower-level reasoning can be problematic when we are faced with ambiguity and uncertainty – hallmarks of today’s fast moving business environment.

What does this model have to do with management practice? I’ve heard managers complain that their workers should behave more like adults. At the same time, they tell me about where workers are “allowed” to sit, when they should work and rest, and even how they should dress. The point is, perhaps it’s not fair to expect employees to act like adults when they are treated like children. Managers need to think about what kind of reasoning they are encouraging in the workplace.

Similarly, if workers are treated in such a way that they learn to motivate their actions through a fear of punishment, the expectation of reward, the need to please, or in blind obedience of rules, can we expect their actions to coincide with the free contribution of ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting, innovative ideas? To create a change, we need to reconsider how we motivate behaviour at work.

An inspirational teacher called Rafe Esquith advocates for a life spent in pursuit of Level 6. The Level 6 reasoning for behaviour is that: I have a personal code of behaviour and I follow it. This might sound individualistic, but the point is that operating on Level 6 requires constant self-reflection and learning. There isn’t a formula for Level 6. Unique situations need to be responded to according to wider principles and a vision for the future, rather than knee-jerk reactions or compliance with general expectations.

Atticus Finch, the lawyer from To Kill a Mockingbird, is put forward as the exemplar of someone who operates on Level 6. Atticus Finch operates on Level 6 because he works to bring about a new kind of future, even if it is unpopular with many. He rejects conformity, and his actions are deeply disruptive. In the book and even beyond, this non-conformity is celebrated and has been influential in the legal profession.

What can managers take away from this? The model I have introduced here can provoke critical reflection on management practice. What “Level” do you and your organisation encourage employees to operate on? Are people free to make up their own minds, or are they motivated by fear and rewards; praise and procedures?

Traditional management practice thrives on risk-avoidance, incentive structures, charismatic leadership, and clear policies. These mechanisms can however all reinforce level 1-4 thinking. That’s not automatically a bad thing, but innovation is not easily generated through these mechanisms.

True disruption, as the name would imply, is uncomfortable. It unsettles the ground that many depend upon for security. Encouraging innovative thinking therefore requires a level of reasoning that embraces the fallibility of the status quo. Managers who are ready to embrace this disruption, and are really looking to encourage innovative thinking, need to reflect on what they are reinforcing on a daily basis. What Level are you asking your team to operate on?

Reference:

Esquith, R. (2007). Teach like your hair’s on fire: The methods and madness inside room 56: Penguin

 

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