Guest blog: How to shift culture for innovation by substituting a carrot-and-stick approach with curiosity

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

By Amy Kay Watson

Every business wants and needs to foster innovation, not just in the research and development department but throughout the organization where process streamlining, cost-cutting, customer-service and new product ideas can make or break the business.

Unfortunately, too many of us have relied on old-fashioned carrot-and-stick approaches to foster innovation. For carrots, some have used monetary incentives for new ideas that might translate into a stronger bottom line. For sticks, most of us have (intentionally or inadvertently) shamed those individuals or teams whose ideas fail or weaken the bottom line.

Some monetary rewards have been proven to work in manufacturing and high-labor environments, but not for knowledge workers, whose thinking, creativity, memory and insight generate revenue and decrease expenses. Just take a look at Ariely's landmark study from The Review of Economic Studies' "Large Stakes and Big Mistakes."

If an incentive program doesn't work, what does?

First, tune your radar to find and eliminate "failure shaming" and punishments.

While rewards cannot change thinking, failure shaming and punishments do change thinking-in the worst ways.

Some failure shaming is blatant. A leader once described to me an organizational culture in which the worst performing of the company's units were regularly brought together for a tongue-lashing so intense he said it was "like watching baby seals getting clubbed." But not all failure shaming is so obvious. It can exist in sarcasm, which masquerades as humor but barely hides criticism and contempt. It exists in questioning that seems benign to the heedless questioner but hits the innovator as an accusation of poor preparation. It exists even in silence that follows a suggestion. The unspoken message? Your idea is so poor it doesn't merit my response.

If any level of shaming is a part of your organization's culture, you run the risk of disengagement. When employees are disengaged at work, their productivity diminishes: "[T]hey are more likely to steal from their employers, negatively influence coworkers, miss workdays, and drive customers away" (Gallup, 2013). And disengaged employees will not innovate on the company's behalf.

Instead, use inquiry-based coaching to foster a culture of innovation.

The shift in thinking and insight required for innovation does result from inquiry-based coaching. Coaching is a leadership skill, distinct from mentoring or advising, that utilizes techniques in powerful questioning to help employees explore alternatives and gain insights.

When a leader or manager approaches problems and ideas with curiosity rather than judgment, this communicates respect and value. The leader or manager who coaches supports his employee in learning the lessons that failure can teach, changing their behavior, and finding solutions to problems. Coaching includes celebrating the attempt to do well and the stretch beyond comfort. It nudges employees into new ideas by encouraging them to apply their learnings to other situations. The result is improved thinking, greater engagement, and more loyalty to the organization.

Actions like these help your people become better thinkers. Inquiry-based coaching reduces the risks of failure and is far more effective than carrot-and-stick approaches to innovation. By tuning your awareness to pick up on both blatant and more subtle shaming, you can create an environment in which innovation is safe. Innovations can then occur throughout your organization where they will make the most difference to your bottom line.

Amy Kay Watson is an ICF-certified leadership and career coach, facilitator of Coach2Lead Performance Coaching for leaders and author of the recently published minibook, Working with Stress and Fear. Learn more at and contact via