How can HR encourage a culture of innovation?

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 10 October 2008


Townend, A. (2008), "How can HR encourage a culture of innovation?", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 7 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

How can HR encourage a culture of innovation?

Article Type: Q&A From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 7, Issue 6

Leading industry experts answer your strategic HR queries

HR professionals are very well placed in organizations to encourage a culture of innovation. They are, for the most part, closely involved with people at every level of the organization and, as a result, have the power and influence to lead organizational change. In particular they can leverage the innovation and creativity that people already bring to their roles and, through leading the way on developing “bigger relationships”, build organizational cultures that are innovative and inclusive of difference.

Defining a culture of innovation

Culture is about people. It is about values and beliefs that underpin our behavior. It is “the way we do things round here.” An organization with a culture encouraging innovation is a place in which people are respected and valued, where there are opportunities for people to learn from their successes as well as from their mistakes. Within such an innovative culture everyone is a learner. Importantly, it is a culture where diversity is valued and in which people are able to express and explore differences without any fear of retribution. The most critical element within this environment is a high level of trust and openness. Where this exists conflict is seen as an opportunity for innovation and transformation rather than something to be feared, avoided or denied. In other words, the conflict is framed in an entirely positive way.

The perception within an organization with an innovating culture is that it is fun to be here, with a key characteristic being people’s excitement about creating something together. Employees are really engaged with each other and with what they are doing. There is a strong connection between people as well as a strong alignment with the strategic goals of the organization. People readily support and challenge each other and in doing so facilitate their own and each other’s learning and development, leading to bigger relationships in which people are truly engaged and able to be their “best selves”.

Encouraging bigger, more assertive relationships

Building bigger, more assertive relationships in which people are able to be their best selves is key to encouraging a culture of innovation. Bigger relationships are those in which people can be who they really are. They are able to bring their best selves to these relationships, which in turn free their energies that directly lead to better organizational performance. There are four energies that, when people draw on them, encourage and support innovation – they are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energies.

Innovation happens in relationships when people are able to engage with each other knowing that they will be listened to, and in turn will listen to other people’s ideas. For people to be innovative they need to feel confident that they will be respected for who they are and what they do by way of their thinking, feeling and behavior. The skills of assertive communication are the way in which people build relationships with each other leading to far greater innovation in everything that people do. These skills help build trust, respect and openness.

For innovation to happen people need to know that they will be supported and challenged by people who respect them and who they respect. In assertive relationships people feel safe to ask questions when they do not understand something. They speak directly to each other when there is conflict or an issue of concern. There is a spirit of enquiry and curiosity that encourages the exploring of differences and the checking out of assumptions and meanings. People actively give, receive and ask for feedback in order that they can deepen their understanding. They recognize that together they can create something bigger and better.

HR leading the way

HR professionals should consider themselves to be the leaders of change when it comes to encouraging a culture of innovation. As a group, it is very important that HR teams work together to create a culture of innovation within their own particular area of expertise. In other words, they need to demonstrate the approach they are nurturing. It will then be far easier to communicate with the rest of the organization that they are a credible force for wider innovation. With senior leaders frequently partnering with their organization’s HR teams, there is a wonderful opportunity for them to build bigger, more inclusive relationships and to lead the way in encouraging a culture of innovation through their leadership, partnership and relationship.

About the author

Anni Townend is a business psychologist with over 20 years of experience working with people in a wide range of organizations. She is the author of two books – Developing Assertiveness, which is a self-help book for managers, and Assertiveness and Diversity, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in September 2007. She can be contacted at:

Anni TownendBusiness psychologis