Young woman sitting on a couch looking at a computer. She holds her hand up to her forehead looking stressed.

‘Striving for innovation’ at your company? Be careful – it might be harmful to your employees

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – If you look at the mission statements of some of the world’s top companies, you’ll find a familiar word throughout many – innovation. While it is understood that innovation is beneficial by helping businesses reach goals and drive success, new research suggests there is a caveat to innovative behavior – it can have negative effects on employees.

Mo Wang

Lanzillotti-McKethan Eminent Scholar Chair, Director of the Human Resource Research Center and Chair of the Department of Management Mo Wang.

“Our findings provide evidence that promoting innovative behavior has important costs,” write researchers Mo Wang, Lanzillotti-McKethan Eminent Scholar Chair at the UF Warrington College of Business, and Thomas W. H. Ng of the University of Hong Kong. “Employees who engaged in innovative behavior reported dysfunctional outcomes.”

The researchers relied on psychological detachment theory to illustrate how these dysfunctional outcomes, like insomnia and hostility, are associated with innovative behavior.

“Pursuant to [psychological detachment] theory, maintaining a clear mental boundary between work and non-work is a vital cognitive process and the key to successful recuperation, whereas detachment difficulty, or the inability to become detached from work, is a precursor of strain reactions [like insomnia and hostility],” Ng and Wang write.

In their research, Ng and Wang found that not only do employees who see others’ innovative behavior report having a greater difficulty detaching from work, they also struggled with detaching from their own innovative behavior. In both cases, employees struggle with psychologically “checking their work baggage at the door,” leading to strain reactions.

Additionally, the researchers found that employees displaying and witnessing innovative behavior can affect coworkers’ strain reactions.

“In our mediational tests, not only did we observe that displaying and witnessing innovative behavior promoted one’s own reactions (insomnia, hostility), we also found that displaying and witnessing innovative behavior indirectly promoted others’ strain reactions (insomnia),” Ng and Wang write.

The researchers note that the employees who engaged in or witnessed innovative behavior likely first struggled with detaching from work, causing them to struggle with insomnia and hostility. These reactions then spread to their coworkers, creating a domino effect of sleep issues.

For managers to address the issues this research finds as they promote innovation among employees, Ng and Wang suggest three solutions.

First, they suggest that managers could help by inspiring employees to psychologically detach from innovative behavior when they are not at work.

“Promoting a culture of healthy work-family balance is important so that employees feel comfortable, not guilty, putting aside innovative tasks when they are at home or resting,” Ng and Wang write.

Second, they suggest that managers can also create a workplace that encourages and facilitates innovative behavior, as well as encouraging trust among team members.

“Emphasizing teamwork may also prevent individuals from becoming stressed by witnessing each other’s innovative behavior,” they said.

Lastly, Ng and Wang suggest that for managers concerned with the hostility created from an employee’s inability to detach from innovative behavior, avoiding the creation of stress by not incessantly encouraging innovative behavior is key. An additional solution is to “reduce hostile behavior at work by cultivating a culture of respect in which hostility is frowned upon.”

“In a culture that emphasizes interpersonal respect, innovative endeavors are less likely to result in hostility,” they write.

This research is forthcoming in Personnel Psychology.