Why Your Brain is a Danger to Innovation and Employee Engagement


A few weeks ago, I took some time off from work and flew down to Greece for holiday. For me, this means catching up time on a lot of readings. It also gave me time for reflection, something that is valuable to my work as a researcher. I always come home from holidays with a new, fresh mind and, best of all – new angles on innovation from all kinds of fields.

I’ve studied and worked with innovation management for the past 15 years. In recent years I’ve conducted a few interesting research projects on what creates conditions for innovation in organizations. During my holiday I was reading a book about the latest research within brain and neuroscience, and it got me thinking of a research case I did a while ago.

I was working with a global manufacturing company that was under a lot of strict regulations for that specific industry. I rolled out assessments to measure the organizational climate and conditions for innovation and also did interviews and workshops with different teams.

The data showed low levels of perceived freedom at work in almost all teams, something that can hamper innovation. In fact, high levels of freedom at work are essential for innovation to happen.

But their industry is and will remain highly regulated, and there was nothing they could do to influence their working situation or the products they manufactured. Was there really nothing they could do to increase the freedom? Of course there was!

We reviewed the data together with the teams and discussed their views of freedom. As it turns out, they had only focused on what the industry prevented them from, not what they could do in terms of other areas, that wasn’t highly regulated. So we started focusing on things that they were allowed to do instead.

What happened then was striking!

The teams went from an extreme low level of perceived freedom in their work to a level that corresponds to an innovative organization, in less than four month. By using dialogue to focus on what they actually could do, not what they couldn’t, they could start to explore other areas in the production. These include ways of communication, energy and water consumption, meeting structure and other processes. As they got a new way of viewing their situation, they started viewing their work as more free.

I think many of us recognize this in our own working situation. We work in industries that are more or less possible to influence, but it is always a matter of perception and finding new ways “around” the regulations and standards to still manage to be innovative.

How can we use the case above to create higher levels of freedom in our organizations? Well, this is when my readings of the brain become useful.

Recent research on how our brain works highlights the importance of that the brain gets to decide for itself. Our brain is wired to act, and need the freedom to decide how, when and what to do in order to perform. So, by giving people freedom we actually let people act according to how the human brain works.

So far it sounds quite easy, but if you’ve been a leader you know that this is a bit of a challenge. But how come giving freedom to employees is challenging for leaders?

Well, this is also connected to our brain’s functionality – the brain associates lack of control with feeling stressed, that’s why we need freedom. This means that our brain wants to control the things we are responsible for in order not to feel stressed, because if we lose control we get stressed.

This becomes very contradictive in a leader-employee relationship. Leaders want control (and freedom) of their situation and responsibilities, and employees want control (and freedom) of their situation and responsibilities. The problem is, an employee is seen as the responsibility of a leader (=wanting control of them) and this is why micromanagement is so common. Leaders are trying to ease the feeling of stress by controlling their situation.

This means that micromanagement is a quite natural phenomenon for our brains. But it doesn’t mean that it is constructive in a world where innovation and employee engagement is a prerequisite to survive in a competing market.

If employees lack freedom it can lead to a feeling of indifference towards the work, and employee engagement levels will drop. Low levels of employee engagement will lead to major productivity losses.

Moreover, if employees don’t feel empowered to reflect and think of how they perform their work, they will never come up with new or alternative ideas and solutions that can benefit the organization. Hence, freedom is directly connected to raise employee engagement and foster innovation.

A leader who wants to give autonomy and freedom must therefore learn to let go of their control and put the trust in the employees (brains) to decide when, what and how to act.


/Anders Wikström, PhD Innovation and Design, CINO @ Prindit


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