How Your Leadership Style Could Be Stifling Innovation and Problem Solving at Your Company

There's a reason fewer innovative ideas come up as your company grows.

learn more about Karin Hurt and David Dye

By Karin Hurt and David Dye

PhotoAlto | Frederic Cirou | Getty Images

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When you were first starting out, it was easy. Innovation was the key to success. Your team was small and everyone had skin in the game. They challenged one another. When problems surfaced, your team spoke up and took fast action.

Related: Drive Real Innovation by Re-discovering Your Intrinsic Entrepreneurial Mindset

Now your team's grown, you've added a management layer or two, and a few processes and procedures to protect your sanity. What you didn't expect was "FOSU."

Why "FOSU," fear of speaking up, is stifling startups

FOSU is the complicated dynamic of leaders not asking for real ideas or feedback (or asking in ways that induce apathy or fear), or ignoring suggestions that cause employees to keep their heads down and play it safe.

If you've worked in a larger company, you've likely seen FOSU rear its ugly head. But, why is it happening to your company now?

Here are a couple of possibilities:

  • Enthusiastic leaders don't realize that their own style or approach is squelching feedback.
  • Insecure, untrained, newly promoted middle-level managers discourage sharing.
  • Organizational structures meant to bring order to chaos are creating artificial barriers to communication and collaboration.
  • No one wants to disappoint the investors, so people feel it's better to lay low.
  • Speaking up takes time, and in a fast-growing company who has time for that?

Related: Innovation a Problem? Go Back to 'Day One' the Way Amazon Constantly Does.

Four ways to overcome FOSU and keep the ideas flowing

We were working with a startup that had grown from five to just over 100 employees in a couple of years. The CEO had brought us in to do some leadership training, but a few hours into the first session, we realized the training would be a waste if we didn't address the cultural issues and growing frustration. A few of the comments:

"I used to be able to just go into Joe's office and tell him what I thought. Now we're so 'corporate.'" (With the implied: "and corporate sucks!")

"I've got lots of great ideas but no one wants to hear them anymore, so I just shut up and do my work."

"Our customers are frustrated, but no one wants to hear why."

"I think we're making some strategic mistakes here, but if I tell Joe, he's going to accuse me of not being a team player, better to just shut up and avoid the drama."

When we talked to Joe, he was shocked and frustrated. "This really ticks me off! I'm constantly asking for their input. Our business depends on it. But, we've grown. I can't just have a constant stream of employees coming through my door."

Related: The Formula Jeff Bezos Uses to Identify Great Ideas

It was time for an "own the U.G.L.Y." conversation. Here's what Joe did next. You can, too.

1. Own the U.G.L.Y.

Joe took the team offsite and spent the day soliciting and sharing ideas. We asked the team:

U -- What are we Underestimating?

G -- What's got to Go?

L -- Where are we Losing?

Y -- Where are we missing the Yes?

Within an hour, the team had many pages brimming with ideas. The "G" team had listed 27 project management and communication software programs employees were required to update regularly. They asked every employee to place a dot vote next to the three they thought were worth keeping. All the dots clustered around the same programs.

They nervously asked the COO, "What if we just got rid of the rest of these?"

And you know what happened next?

He said yes!

"I thought you all wanted these. I've been approving each new request to be supportive. For each one of these, one of you thought it was a "must have." But, maintaining all these licenses is expensive. If you don't want these tools, neither do I. Let's go with the three you voted on."

2. Stop being the hero.

It's tempting to have all the answers. After all, you built this business by jumping in and doing just the right thing at the right time. It's a rush.

But, when you know it all, why should anyone else speak up? The more charismatic you are, the harder it is for others to think their ideas stack up. The problem is all that helping may be hurting.

If you want to prevent FOSU, leave some space for people to solve problems on their own.

Related: What My 15-Plus Years at Apple Taught Me About Building Innovation from Scratch

3. Practice responsive listening.

One mistake we see leaders make is to ask for input and then fail to respond. Of course, when you hear 17 different ideas and some of them you know won't work, it can be easy to either ignore or even shoot them down. When you do, you reinforce FOSU. If employees are asked for their opinion and hear nothing in response, it's maddening.

To prevent FOSU, use responsive listening. It's not enough to ask, it's how you respond that makes the difference.

Responding doesn't mean you have to take action on every idea you hear. It just means that you close the loop. Take the feedback and ideas you receive, process it, and share what you heard, what you're going to do, and why.

4. Reward the sharing and receiving of best practices.

As your team grows, the natural sharing of best practices gets trickier. You've got to be more deliberate to make it happen.

In a Harvard Business Review article, MIT researcher Michael Schrage detailed one way to do this by acknowledging both the person who comes up with an idea and team members who "steal" the idea and make it their own:

"The design was simple, clever and cheap: Top management would recognize and reward people who demonstrated ability to cross-functionally get real value from their colleagues and cohorts. We created two complementary yet competitive awards: 'Thief of the Month' -- a modest prize and high-profile internal acknowledgment for teams and small groups who 'stole' an idea or innovation from another unit and successfully incorporated it into their own business; and 'We Wuz Robbed' -- a comparably modest prize and recognition for having one's group's best practice or process adopted by another internal group."

One result of the program? Employees went out of their way to share best practices.

You can prevent FOSU when you face the ugly issues head on, stop being a hero, ask for input then respond to what you hear, and find ways to bring out, then celebrate the very best ideas from your entire team.

Karin Hurt and David Dye

Founders of Let's Grow Leaders

Karin Hurt and David Dye are leadership experts, keynote speakers and the award-winning authors of Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul. They are are the founders of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership consulting firm.

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