Why Won’t Your Staff or Co-Workers Innovate?

We’ve been counseled by healthcare leaders that one answer to our financial and quality challenges, that our industry is facing this decade and beyond, is to innovate, transform or alter the things we have been doing for decades to create a new healthcare model for the 21st century. But despite all of these warnings by healthcare futurists about the importance of innovation at most healthcare organizations their staff and co-workers are still not putting forth new and better ideas to face these challenges. All management hears is the same old tired refrain from their employees of “I’m too busy to think of new ideas, let alone get everything done that is being asked of me and, by the way, isn’t this somebody else’s job to come up with bright ideas?”

Is this really the right answer?  A recent study at the University of Kansas where hundreds of employees ranging from managers to stock clerks were asked “why they don’t innovate” found that the real answer to why we aren’t innovating more is that our employees don’t want to risk looking stupid, provoking anger or standing out from their peers.  The technical term for this phenomenon that was coined by the authors (Feirong Yuan and Richard W. Woodman) of this study is “image risks” or avoiding unfavorable social impressions from their peers who are comfortable with the status quo.

It’s almost like these individuals are back in elementary school where they don’t want their friends and schoolmates to think negatively of them for asking too many questions or getting the top grades in their class.  And then, they call the people who do so “nerds” which I guess makes them feel better about themselves.  

Fortunately, the authors discovered that the answer to this “image risk” problem is for healthcare leaders to support innovation at their hospitals, systems and IDNs by creating a sense of psychological safety by providing an environment in which differences are tolerated and people feel free to approach problems in new ways.

From my experience, “image risks” can be reduced by rewarding your employees for their new ideas as opposed to criticizing or ignoring them. I can remember, some years ago, at a value analysis team meeting that I was facilitating that the President of the hospital came unannounced to the team meeting and proceeded to handout theater tickets to all team members for their good innovative work they were doing. This is the leadership support I’m talking about!


So now you know, the real reason your staff and co-workers won’t innovate isn’t because they are too busy, but because they are afraid to look foolish or don’t want aggravate their co-workers.  But healthcare leaders can have a big impact on this problem, if and when, they decide to make innovation a normal acceptable and rewarding part of every employee’s job.

Robert T. Yokl

Chief Value Strategist

Strategic Value Analysis® in Healthcare


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