Career Coach: Freedom and empowerment can get your employees' creative juices flowing

By Kathryn M. Bartol
Monday, May 17, 2010

The best companies are those that are always one step ahead, constantly innovating and anticipating the market's next need. Some of the major tech players may spring to mind -- Google, Apple -- but organizations in all industries need to adapt and innovate, and to do this they need people who approach problems with creativity.

If you want and need innovation solutions in your organization, the best way to get the creative juices flowing is to use your leadership to empower your team.

Empowering leadership means you have the foresight to share power with the people you manage -- you give your employees opportunities to work on significant projects and participate in decision-making, and you remove bureaucratic constraints and show confidence that their performance will be high. You need to be able to delegate authority to an employee so he or she can make significant decisions and implement actions without continual direct supervision or intervention.

When you hand over a project and give employees greater freedom, you're giving them space to explore many creative solutions. You are also providing the confidence boost some employees may need to really find interest and take ownership in a project. It is also crucial to emphasize the importance of creativity to your organization -- when an individual understands this, he or she is more likely to actually think creatively.

Managers are likely to find differences in the extent to which employees wish to be empowered -- the rule here is that not all members of your team will thrive with equal amounts of autonomy. You will likely need to groom members of your team gradually, introducing small projects and building on those until you get to a level where you and they will feel comfortable with you handing over the reins on a large project that requires creative thinking.

Once you've empowered your employees and they are motivated to come up with creative solutions, they should spend time going through the full creative process. First, identify the problem the organization needs to address. Then spend significant effort to fully understand that problem and get as much information about it as possible. This will help generate numerous ideas and alternatives.

As a leader, you can play an active role in encouraging this creative process engagement by making clear that you really need creative outcomes and spelling out what the organization values. Explain the elements of an effective creative process at your organization. This could mean implementing a structured process that you use for every creative project.

Don't be afraid to hang back and let your team run with generating ideas. No doubt some will be too "out there," but if you let your team operate with greater autonomy, they will home in on the most novel and useful -- and hopefully most viable -- solutions. Then it is time to consider which ones to implement.

Kathryn M. Bartol is the Robert H. Smith professor of management and organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. Her research centers on leadership, social exchange, knowledge sharing, and information technology implications for management and organizations. She can be reached at

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