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Float an idea past the boss? Acceptance depends more on the type of manager than the content of the idea

02 September 2013

Managers who are competitive are less open to creative ideas from their staff than managers who want to improve themselves. Companies where creativity is an important success factor can thus suffer from managers who want to be the best. This is the conclusion reached by Roy Sijbom, who will receive a PhD from the University of Groningen on 5 September.

So what determines whether a manager will or will not pick up an idea presented by a member of staff? Organizational psychologist Roy Sijbom discovered that the idea itself is not always the deciding factor. The main thing is whether the manager you float your idea past is ready to learn something new.

Two types of manager

Sijbom conducted experiments with 458 Dutch students in management roles and asked 394 American managers to complete a questionnaire. During the experiments, the test subjects had to think about how they would introduce a new product to the market. A previously instructed ‘subordinate’ then presented a better way of doing so than the plan that the manager test subject had come up with. The researchers then observed how the test subject reacted.

The results show that managers with performance goals – leaders who want to be the best and demonstrate their knowledge and skills to their staff – are more quickly inclined to strangle the creative ideas of their subordinates at birth. ‘Mangers who want to demonstrate their superior skills find it difficult to hear from their subordinates that certain things on the work floor could be improved’, says Sijbom. ‘They view the ideas proposed by their subordinates as a threat to their leadership reputation.’

This is in contrast to managers who consider they have room to improve and want to learn new knowledge and skills (managers intent on ‘mastery’). They are open to the suggestions of staff. They use the creative ideas of others to learn from. It doesn’t matter to them whether the idea comes from a subordinate or a superior. A ‘performance manager’ tends to listen only to ideas presented by his or her superior.

Friendly tone

So is it a lost cause to float ideas to managers who are mainly focused on their own performance? ‘Not quite’, says Sijbom. ‘The performance-focused boss is extra sensitive to the way that staff communicate their creative ideas. A friendly tone can work wonders, my research has revealed.’ It’s also in the employee’s interests when explaining the idea not to dwell on the problems that led to it being thought up it but to emphasize its usefulness.

Curriculum vitae

Roy Sijbom (Emmen, 1983) completed the Research Master in Human Behaviour in Social Contexts at the University of Groningen. His supervisors were Prof. O. Janssen and Prof. N.W. van Yperen. The research was financed by NWO. Sijbom has a postdoc position at the University of Ghent starting on 1 October 2013.

Last modified:13 March 2020 02.17 a.m.
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