Fostering a climate for innovation and creativity in the workplace: Which national culture characteristics hinder the process?

Sotiris Karagiannis, BSc, MEd, MBA

Managing Partner, Senior Trainer and Business Consultan at MDI South East Europe

Professor of Organizational Behavior & Leadership at UNYP


In my many years as a business consultant, I have come across a great challenge many organizations face, especially during times of high ambiguity in the marketplace.

For most of these organizations, the paradox is this: although organizational culture is driven by the need for innovation and creativity, to ensure growth and sustainability of competitive advantage, the reality is that often companies become mired in their own comfortable yet antiquated processes.

But first, let’s make sure we all understand that innovation and creativity is not only about conceiving a brilliant new idea for a product or service that no one else has ever dreamed of before. It is also about people being able to think “out of the box”, to find solutions to problems that at first sight may seem impossible to tackle, learn from mistakes and dare to take risks, even if the stakes are high. Innovative stars, like 3M or Google, have made that happen, and even allow their people to dedicate a considerable amount of their time during working hours to explore new possibilities.

So, what’s happening with those organizations that lack the spirit to innovate? Assessing the climate for creativity and innovation with the use of standardized instruments available in the industry, I have come across a number of explanations. There is one though, that I have found most enduring and that is national culture characteristics – especially those involving high uncertainty avoidance and risk aversion. When people from a certain national culture have a strong tendency to avoid situations that are ambiguous and prefer to work and function under stable and predictable conditions, there is a high chance that their ability to be creative and innovative is sacrificed for the sake of safety in making seemingly risk-free decisions.

Can leaders of organizations change this? Although it is strongly believed that national culture characteristics cannot easily change, there is increasing evidence that the climate for innovation and creativity in the workplace can be fostered when there is tolerance for mistakes, genuine recognition for people’s contribution with new ideas as well as an engaged workforce that is motivated through a sense of autonomy. The result is that individuals and ultimately the companies that they work for are able to reach heightened levels of performance by allowing employees to step outside their functional areas so that they can view the world from new and valuable perspectives.

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