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Innovative Employees: Factors and Mechanisms


There is an urge to have innovative employees in the workplace as organizations need to continuously innovate. Organizations place great emphasis on their employees’ creative abilities and their role in the workplace. Therefore, they need to fully understand the term “Innovative Employees” as well as the factors that influence them (individual, organizational, job, and team levels factors). It is recommended to analyze those before taking any management decisions that could cost lots of money, such as training the current employees or hiring new ones.

Definition of innovative employees

Diehl & Seeck (2008) defined employee innovativeness as an “engagement in innovative behaviours, which includes behaviours related to the innovation process, i.e. idea generation, idea promotion and idea realization with the aim of producing innovations”. Innovation can be categorized either as incremental or radical and as either technological or administrative. As a result, innovative employees can be assessed throughout the innovation process, starting from the ideation phase to the implementation phase and the commercialization of products/services (or the implementation of new processes or structures within the organization). 

When talking about innovation, it is essential to point out that there is a difference between creative employees and innovative employees, especially as several organizations use both terms interchangeably. As explained by Diehl & Seeck (2008), creativity is more concerned with the huge production of ideas (idea generation stage) only while innovation is related to the successful implementation of those ideas. Consequently, creativity doesn’t necessarily result in innovation but innovation will definitely need creativity.

Factors influencing innovative employees

There are four levels of factors that influence innovative employees: Individual, Job, Team, and Organizational level factors. 

  • Individual

    This includes abilities such as above-average skills, knowledge and general intellect, and domain or task-specific skills that show the employees’ educational level, training, expertise, and knowledge relevant to the job; and personality characteristics (Diehl & Seeck, 2008). The personality characteristics involve openness to new experiences, independence of judgment, a firm sense of self as creative, and self-confidence. Those factors have been revealed to lead to some employees being more creative than others. Flexibility and taking risks (the ability to try and accept failure) have also been shown to be related to creativity and innovation (Diehl & Seeck, 2008).

    Organizations require abilities, skills, and personality characteristics such as networking, new technology, languages, cultural sensitivity, ethical behavior, learning skills, reflective skills, flexibility, entrepreneurship, problem-solving, and reliability. Those skills could be investigated during the hiring process, however, others can’t be really detected unless tested on the job. And in this latter case comes the role of the organization by encouraging and developing an environment that supports innovation, for example, offering training in innovation-related skills (Diehl & Seeck, 2008). Similarly, Sameer & Ohly (2017) highlighted that personality factors such as proactivity, self-confidence and originality, motivation, and cognitive ability impact individual innovation.

    All of the previously mentioned factors should be considered by organizations whether they recruit or train their candidates for innovation. Asking the candidates to take some personality tests during the hiring phase could give the recruiters a good hint of the candidates’ personalities. This can help them identify the right training that a potential hire may need.

  • Job

    Those factors involve the ones related to the contextual characteristics of the individual’s everyday job. The jobs’ tasks and projects have an impact on the extent to the employees will be involved in innovative work behaviors. In other words, the way the employees’ jobs are structured impacts their motivation; in turn, this influences their innovation tasks engagement (Diehl & Seeck, 2008).

    Various job characteristics impact employee innovativeness, such as a high level of autonomy, non-routine tasks, and sufficient material resources (such as time to execute innovative tasks/jobs) (Diehl & Seeck, 2008). Organizations should analyze their jobs carefully and identify the workload of each to allow room for innovation; otherwise, employees will be concerned only with finishing their daily tasks. Allowing sufficient time and resources for innovation are vital elements for innovation, however, employees need to feel that innovation is among their priorities to perform it with the same level of energy as they perform their daily tasks.

  • Team

    Team tasks, context, and team characteristics are proven to impact innovativeness (Diehl & Seeck, 2008; Sameer & Ohly 2017). For instance, team composition has proven to influence employee innovativeness. In other words, deep-level diversity within a team means diversity in skills, knowledge, experiences, etc. This will help in having a pool of ideas with different perspectives. Other team-level factors encompass a team’s level of agreement and cohesiveness as well, which have a great influence on innovation (Diehl & Seeck, 2008).

    Personality tests are important in identifying and understanding the personality of each employee. Those tests will give insights on which team members should be working together, as we do not want to end up with team conflicts and disputes instead of innovative ideas. It is also recommended to always have a diverse team from different departments such as marketing and finance. This will allow them to have different perspectives in one team instead of having only the point of view of the production or R&D.

  • Organizational

    Organizational level factors are a bit complicated as they include several elements such as the individual characteristics of the CEO, the organization’s size, and market share. Corporate and innovation strategies, organizational structure, and culture are core factors for innovation (Diehl & Seeck, 2008; Sameer & Ohly 2017). Innovation strategy is an important factor as it creates a roadmap for innovation.

    There is no definitive type of structure for the organizational structure that is proven to be the most appropriate for innovation. However, it is believed that the organic structures — such as the matrix structure and the venture structure described by lack of hierarchies, low levels of bureaucracy, a wide span of control, flexibility, and adaptability — are favored for innovation (Diehl & Seeck, 2008). Finally, organizational culture is an essential component for an innovative environment. A clear mission statement (highlighting the value of innovation and internal entrepreneurship), high autonomy, tolerance of mistakes, continuous learning, and low bureaucracy are some of the most dominant elements of innovative culture.

    Creating a culture with a climate for psychological safety, service, and initiative at the team or organizational level is crucial. Teams need to feel that they can take risks without having to feel fear towards negative results on their self-image, status, or career. This can happen through: low risk in showing ideas, higher level of job involvement, and better learning experience (Diehl & Seeck, 2008).

    Lukes & Stephan (2017) has identified three main factors that influence employee innovativeness: managers, features of the organization, and wider national culture. For the managers’ role, leader/manager support is crucial for innovation; employees need to feel that their supervisors provide support to new and innovative ideas. One well-known and vital mechanism of showing a leaders’ support is leader-member exchange.

    Ul ain Aslam, Ali, & Choudhary (2020) explained that leadership, creativity, and innovation have a positive relationship with each other. Leader-member exchange theory (LMX) recommends that leaders maintain different levels or quality of relationships with their employees. Leaders become more efficient when they create a healthy relationship with their followers which can be achieved through transactional and transformational leadership styles.

To sum up, all of the previously mentioned factors should be considered when organizations consider innovation. It is not just about spending a large amount of money on training your employees or providing them with workshops. It is about having the right building blocks for your innovation capability and revising them every now and then.

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