Is continuous improvement leaving your employees feeling helpless?

Innovate or die!

That’s the mantra a lot of organisations seem to live by nowadays.

And surely, innovating, changing and striving to always improve is a good thing, right?

Or is there a danger that a culture of continuous improvement and always innovating could be detrimental to your employees motivation and well-being?

The research

Research published in the July 2017 edition of the Journal of Organizational Behavior looked at the organisational conditions around innovation which can lead to helplessness, fatigue and burnout among employees. The researchers surveyed 84 managers and 387 staff in organisations across different sectors, in China and Korea, such as technology, finance and retail.

Organisational innovation should typically have four sequential stages:

Awareness + Adoption + Implementation + Routinization

One of the concerns the researchers had is that:

“In competitive and dynamic business environments, organizations tend to initiate a new innovation cycle even though their previously adopted innovations are still under the early phase of implementation.”  

Therefore, the research team were keen to understand how employees were impacted by organisations who were continuously innovating, with no apparent let-up.

Underpinning the research is the theory of ‘learned helplessness’, first identified in 1967 by Bruce Overmier and Martin Seligman. The original research looked at the impact on animals exposed to inescapable external shocks and ineffective attempts to cope. 

The theory of learned helplessness was subsequently adapted to relate to humans and organisations. Mark Martinko and William Gardner suggested a model  which suggested employees learn helplessness when organisational changes (e.g. technological change) are paired with negative experiences (e.g. failure to use the new technology leading to poor performance appraisal).

In addition, there is the added notion that most, if not all, decisions around what to innovate and when are made by organisational leadership meaning that changes are imposed, leaving employees feeling little to no control. Thus, this only adds to the feelings of helplessness, fatigue and in extreme instances, burnout.

The findings

  1. The perceived intensity of innovation can lead to employees feeling helpless.  In this instance, intensity refers both to volume (i.e. number of innovations) and lack of downtime between one innovation being implemented and the next one coming along;
  2. The perceived failure of previous innovation has an impact on the level of helplessness employees may feel;
  3. Helplessness in relation to innovation can lead to fatigue, thereby debilitating and impairing employee readiness for subsequent innovations;
  4. Fatigue caused by innovation may mean employees are less likely to behave in the right way to help implementation of a subsequent innovation;
  5. Supportive behaviour in relation to a subsequent innovation is positively related to the outcome to be gained by an individual (i.e. ‘what’s in it for me?’)

What it means for organisations and practitioners

There is a particularly pertinent sentence in the article where the researchers state,

“negative experiences of employees with past organizational changes may engender their pessimism towards the competence of change agents, thereby promoting their cynicism toward subsequent changes”

With this in mind, here are some practical solutions which may help:

  1. Organisational leadership should plan in sufficient lag time between one innovation ending and another beginning. Within this is the importance of celebrating success once an innovation has become routinized.
  2. If it’s not possible to have time lag between innovations, set out a clear, easy-to-understand, compelling case as to why. Avoid corporate jargon. Just explain in simple terms why there is an overlap between innovations. In addition, show that you appreciate the impact this may have on people in the short-term and how you intend to support them during that period.
  3. Use positive reinforcement during the implementation and routinization phases, rather than punishment for failing to meet new targets or apply new processes. This is more likely to be effective in creating the supportive behaviour needed from employees. Therefore, it’s important line managers have the skills necessary to give feedback in a helpful, constructive and optimistic way.
  4. Try linking reward schemes to the right behaviour and giving recognition to those who continually try (although may not necessarily succeed initially). This can be done at a local, team level and doesn’t have to be a big, formal organisational affair. Although, it can also be good to get a thank you email from the chief executive or director. Even better, is if those leaders walk around the offices where staff are implementing innovation, speaking to them and more importantly, thanking them for their efforts.
  5. Lessons learned are great but there can be tendency to focus on what went wrong and therefore, what would be done differently again. This needs to be tempered with success stories and case studies. It can be helpful to ask employees who have successfully implemented an innovation to tell their story – how did they go about things, what do they think they did that helped them succeed? This can be done via video (filmed on a smartphone) and shared via the company intranet or whatever platform is used.

There’s no getting away from organisational innovation, and nor should we as long as it’s change that improves, rather than change for changes sake. With this in mind, if your organisation tends to continually innovate then it might be worth taking a step back and thinking about it from your employee’s perspectives. It could be the difference between success or failure.

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