IBM Chief Strategist: Hostile Management Bullies and the other Foes of Innovation
Irving Wladawsky-Berger is one of IBM's top strategists. The following is an edited extract from a longer article: Indifference, Hostility, Isolation and Other Obstacles to a Healthy Innovation Environment.
Mr Wladawsky-Berger draws upon a long career within IBM and also from his experiences working with thousands of companies around the world.
By Irving Wladawsky-Berger
In most companies, just about all the cards are stacked against the nurturing of innovation, especially the kinds of new ideas and disruptive innovations that generally lead to major changes in the marketplace and within the business.
Is that too pessimistic a view? Perhaps. Let me discuss some of the behaviors I have observed through the years in various companies, which have convinced me how difficult it is to create the proper environment for innovation to flourish.
Indifference. While just about every CEOs and senior executive of a company will pay lip service to innovation, many do not really mean it. It is not because they are not good, smart and highly competent people. It is just not part of their DNA. Of course, they mouth the words – it would be politically incorrect for them not to embrace innovation. But they do little beyond that.
Why is that? The majority of executives make it to top positions by being very good operational managers: meeting sales objectives, improving products and services to keep up with competitors, supporting existing customers and acquiring new ones, managing mergers and acquisitions, achieving the required financial results quarter after quarter, and so on. These management jobs are very tough and getting tougher, given our rapidly changing, fiercely competitive, global business environment. Being a good manager takes very hard work, attention to detail and organizational discipline. . .
. . . Hostility. In general, managers who do not actively encourage new ideas and innovations in their organizations do so because of indifference. It is just not who they are. They will typically listen politely to your new idea, provide some encouragement and offer good advice. If they are being honest, they will tell you that they barely have the time, energy and budget to help much beyond a pat on the back now and then.
But some managers - fortunately, a relatively small number, in my experience - go beyond indifference. Their initial reaction to any new idea is negative, if not downright hostile. This is particularly true if the idea comes from someone outside their own organization. They tend to be poor team players and autocratic.
Some of them also exhibit characteristics that many of us would associate with being a bully. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines bully as "a blustering, browbeating person; especially one habitually cruel to others who are weaker." Wikipedia's entry says, "Research indicates that adults who bully have personalities that are authoritarian, combined with a strong need to control or dominate. It has also been suggested that a deficit in social skills and a prejudicial view of subordinates can be particular risk factors.”
These words pretty much fit the behavior of the corporate bullies I have met. Typically, they have achieved their high management positions because, despite their poor interpersonal skills, they are very good at other parts of the job. Sometimes, they are excellent innovators themselves, but given their autocratic tendencies, innovation to them is a one man/woman show. Collaborative innovation is not for them.
I would further add that another reason people with such behaviors are tolerated by upper management is that they generally are very respectful of hierarchy and authority and treat those above them very differently, reserving their worst behaviors for colleagues and subordinates.
Such hostile behavior is particularly detrimental to a healthy innovation environment. People championing new ideas, especially if they are potentially disruptive new ideas, are doing so by going against the grain of what the business is currently doing. Rejection is painful, especially coming from people in positions of authority. Senior managers can nurture those new ideas through positive words and actions, or they can stop them on their tracks by being overly negative and combative. . .
. . .Fostering innovation is very hard, especially if the innovation is disruptive in nature. A spirit of innovation and collaboration does not come naturally to an organization. For such a spirit to take hold, it must become an integral part of the company's culture. None of this is easy, but it is what a company must do if it truly wants to create a healthy environment for innovation to flourish.
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You can read the entire article on Irving Waldawsky-Berger's blog: Indifference, Hostility, Isolation and Other Obstacles to a Healthy Innovation Environment.