How encouraging employee innovation can help attract talent

Employers that don't harness employee-driven innovation will be left behind, says academic

How encouraging employee innovation can help attract talent

Recent research in Singapore shows that firms encouraging employee innovation are more likely to attract and retain talent.

In work published by Justina Tan, associate professor at Singapore University of Social Sciences, making employee-driven innovation achievable not only motivates talented staff but also encourages them to stay.

“Companies that encourage employees to innovate come across as very progressive and open-minded, so they attract talent,” says Tan, who edited Making Employee-Driven innovation Achievable with Wing On Lee. “Talents are usually people who are not just satisfied with the status quo, they want to push the boundaries, want to do more and like to experiment.

“Talents also recognise the success of a progressive organisation that encourages innovation because they can see the positive outcomes that are more likely to give their employer a competitive edge.”  

Innovation, talent attraction and retention

Meaningful innovation that has a high probability of assisting an organisation in talent attraction and retention goes beyond just ideation, she emphasises. It needs to involve the actual implementation of an idea, whether that be a large or radical idea, or something very incremental or continuous and embedded in the day-to-day work.

“For innovation to genuinely contribute to talent retention, employers must go beyond merely stating their commitment to fostering innovation. It’s not just about paying lip service - it requires a day-in, day-out embodiment of the organisation's vision. They must consistently walk the talk.”

To establish this environment, says Tan, those in senior positions must create a psychologically safe space in which it’s acceptable for people to fail, because not all innovations will go the way intended.

“The role of senior management is pivotal in creating an environment in which people feel willing to innovate,” she says. “They are the role models, and people want to see whether they actually walk the talk or are just making empty promises.”

Management approach critical to innovation culture

In larger organisations, middle management too are vital to the innovation culture, says Tan.

“The role of middle management holds even greater importance and influence, given their frequent interactions with employees throughout the organisation. Many individuals unknowingly innovate in their roles, because they realise there’s a quicker or safer way of doing things.

“Often, these innovations go unshared with superiors. This dynamic is a powerful driver for innovation. Conversely, senior management, particularly those with deep institutional knowledge, may unintentionally become gatekeepers by relying on past experiences instead.”

Culture of learning critical to innovation

Having transparent and open communication with employees about innovation outcomes is important too, she says.

“This is vital, whether the innovation is a success or failure. You can learn from failures, so there’s nothing shameful about failing when it comes to innovation.

“This helps create a different kind of learning environment and innovation can only happen when an organisation is not only innovating but creates a culture of learning too.”

Where innovation involves financial resources, knowing that management has been supportive in this way is also a motivator for employees, she says, noting that communicating the outcomes back to people as a result of suggestions is also key.

Wellbeing and innovation

Levels of wellbeing within the organisation will impact the extent to which innovation is achievable, Tan says.

“Wellbeing is crucial to the seeding and trialling of innovation. Our research shows that when employees feel a sense of belonging and trust in their environment and have collegial relationships with their colleagues, they are more invested in the outcomes.”

Tan emphasises the approach an organisation adopts towards innovation should take into consideration the demographics of employees, the nature of the industry, and the power of consultation.

“Studies have shown that senior employees in organisations tend to resist innovation. We did a study with a cleaning company which hired a lot of senior employees, who were very resistant to working with robots to clean the vast spaces in shopping malls,” she says.

“However, when this company involved these employees in decision-making, solicited their feedback and gave awards and recognition, these employees became less resistant.”

Employers neglecting employee innovation left behind

Employers that don't harness employees’ innovation will be left behind, says Tan, who advises that organisations starting out on an employee-driven innovation culture begin with something small.

“People then become more interested to take that extra step. They create a small group of influencers who become the ambassadors of innovation and that can go on to create a ripple effect.

“Gradually, this will become the culture of the organisation.”

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