Creativity is lauded in the business media, and pundits and leaders insist often and loudly that innovation is essential for business success. But when researchers carefully examine the behavior of real-life bosses they find something very different from this universal acclaim for creativity.

Rather than encourage and promote creative people and non-conformists, managers routinely discourage and suppress them, multiple studies have found. (Sadly, that's true of teachers too.) Opinionated free thinkers are a handful, after all. It's much easier to keep the wheels of business spinning when everyone behaves like a cog.

The only trouble with that, of course, is that conformity kills employee motivation and idea generation, so that your company will almost certainly fall behind more innovative, engaged competitors eventually. That means behavior that feels sensible and comfortable in the short-term can spell doom in the longer term.

How not to be an innovation hypocrite.

And not only does only paying lip service to innovation harm your company, it also makes for a whole lot of hypocrisy, with leaders telling their people to think outside the box and then penalizing if they actually do so (even if this only happens subconsciously).

If you're horrified by the idea you might be inadvertently squashing innovation in this way, then check out Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino's suggestions for how to run a genuinely creative-friendly company in the Wall Street Journal recently. Here they are in brief:

  1. Model non-comformity. Share crazy ideas, behave in unexpected ways, admit your doubts and vulnerabilities. "Too many leaders run meetings that subtly stifle nonconformity. They may boldly speak their minds and even identify themselves as mavericks, but they dominate the conversation or create an environment where people don't feel safe enough to bring out their perspective," warns Gino.
  2. Call out conformity. If you see people reflexively defending the status quo, don't say silent. Actively point out you'd like more dissent and debate.
  3. Let your people play to their strengths. Employees do their best work when they exercise their inherent strengths, not when they're pretending to be whoever they think you want them to be. That might mean letting employees rotate through different departments to uncover those strengths or tailoring their job to their abilities and preferences.

Intrigued? Check out Gino's WSJ piece for lots more details.

Have you ever had a boss who was great at managing rebels? What made him or her so effective?