Why Leaders Must Encourage Their Employees to Explore Their Creativity — and How to Do It Leaders can get frustrated when it seems their employees aren't being innovative. But creativity isn't something that just happens — leaders have to foster it with a culture of freedom and understanding.

By Ed Macha

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

During the global oil crisis of the 1970s, a little-known scientist named M. Stanley Whittingham first developed the concept of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Over the next 50 years, others improved on his idea, and now, the lithium-ion battery is essential for everyday life.

But the creativity necessary for innovation doesn't happen by accident. Leaders need to be intentional about encouraging their teams to examine critical issues and explore their creative sides. This is how we develop the life-changing technologies that propel humanity forward.

Why innovate?

The greatest innovations are often bred out of necessity. Humans are natural problem solvers. It's in our DNA, and I would even argue it's our plight as a species. Our ability to devise solutions and create new technologies has allowed us to make astounding advancements that improve the quality of life for billions of people.

How do these life-changing technologies come about? We first need to understand the problems we face — but too often, we put ourselves and others in a state of fear.

Managers and leaders who wonder why their people seem content to complain rather than innovate should take a hard look at their company's processes to determine whether their culture fosters the freedom people need so they can create.

Related: The Importance of Creativity in the Workplace

Netflix vs. blockbuster

Netflix's model made Blockbuster obsolete in about ten years. Blockbuster made plenty of mistakes in that time, but arguably, their biggest error was getting too comfortable. There were several times when Blockbuster could have put Netflix out of business (including buying them out for $50 million), but they didn't. Blockbuster had become the at-home movie rental business leader, and their leadership teams didn't see the big picture. This failure to embrace a culture of innovation led to their eventual demise.

Netflix, on the other hand, encouraged creative freedom. They gave their employees room to problem-solve, come up with big ideas, and fail. It empowered them to take risks, through guidance and mentorship. Their employees likely felt trusted and valued because of this freedom — and incredible things came from it. As a result, Netflix remains atop its perch as one of the world's top streaming services.

Managing teams that dream

If you want a team that dreams about how to build the world of tomorrow, focus on freedom. Why has the U.S. historically been ahead of the rest of the world in creating new technologies? One major factor is that our government framework allows independent people to operate in a free market system. Even a century ago, today's world was beyond imagination, and it was all built by people who dreamed big and had the freedom and opportunity to create something good for humanity.

It's risky to encourage your people to be problem solvers. Many innovations fail, and failure can be expensive. But failure isn't a reason not to try, and the leaders who underwrite their people's failures (when they're not a result of incompetence) will build a culture of trust.

Employees who feel their leaders trust them can feel comfortable taking risks, and that's what it takes to invent.

Related: 5 Ways to Inspire Creativity and Innovation in Your Employees

Your people are the key to success

It's not as easy as just telling your employees to "dream big and innovate." They need more guidance than that. As leaders, it's our job to provide the right environment.

For people to innovate, they need a problem to solve — so, start with that. What needs are you trying to meet as a company? Once you identify the problem, your people will succeed — as long as you have fostered a culture of innovation.

It's critical to ensure your team understands what innovation really is. It's the application of science and the integration of existing technologies to create something new that the world needs. Understanding this simple concept makes all the difference. As a leader, stay informed on the latest discoveries and breakthroughs, and focus on finding creative ways to integrate them. This is how transformative solutions come to be, and it's all about the betterment of humankind.

People are the key to any and all success, so find out what makes them tick. What are their personal and professional goals? What will give them purpose? Once you know that, you can start to provide the means to get them there. With experience, you can give them enough focus to see the problem clearly, along with the necessary resources to get them started. Instead of depending on KPIs and data, leaders might see more progress if they embrace their humanity and concentrate on people development instead.

How to foster creativity:

  • Allow your team to be free in thought and expression.

  • Empower your people to own their own destinies.

  • Guide your team with vision, clarity and focus.

  • Never allow management to stall the creative process, especially when they feel threatened by incoming, innovative ideas.

Related: 7 Ways to Help Your Employees Become Better Problem-Solvers

Management isn't about power

A culture of innovation starts with setting the cornerstones of trust, mentorship and freedom. Managers should provide their teams with a clear objective, the space to perform and a team to rely on. Creative employees feel trusted and in turn trust their leadership because they have been given the tools and support they need to accomplish their purpose, goals and dreams.

We cannot forget the dreams who made us who we are today. Therefore, the world we imagine today is what will be.

Wavy Line
Ed Macha

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

President and CEO of Reliable Controls Corporation

Ed Macha is the president and CEO of Reliable Controls Corporation, a key partner to starting up some of the most important mining mega-projects in the U.S., Latin America, Canada and beyond.

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