HR Leadership

How Intelligent HRM Leadership Can Give Employees the Freedom to Innovate

Overview: An organization chock-full of the brightest employees in the world can be undermined by bad leadership. What does good leadership look like? How has leadership changed from command-and-control ideologies? This article answers these questions with a focus on empowering employees.



If you’re comfortable with the amount of freedom you’ve given your employees, you haven’t gone far enough.
— Laszlo Bock, CEO of Humu, Work Rules!

Culture is the determining factor of whether a work environment is conducive to innovation and success, and HR leadership dictates the tone. Whether employees are onboard with new concepts and projects, and willing to adapt to changing times, is largely a reflection of the approach and strategy of HRM.

An undesirable work culture is often characterized by an “us against them” mindset between employees and management, which is a common but toxic environment that is guaranteed to asphyxiate any creativity. HR leadership, then, should strive for a culture of collaboration, where employees are encouraged to push their boundaries and even make mistakes without fear of recrimination.

HR leaders and professionals are wising up, changing their strategy, and focusing on creating a more palatable and sustainable employee experience.

The Employee Experience Matters

Times have changed. Loyalty is no longer guaranteed, because workers are transient and quick to move on to the next opportunity. A survey of Gen Yers by The Guardian found that over 90 percent of millennials don’t expect to remain with an employer for more than five years. But a revolving door is expensive.

Today, employers must entice new talent and retain talent to be competitive. To attract new talent, HRM must include outreach, branding, and a smooth onboarding experience. To retain talent, HR strategies must provide development programs that bring quick results, lateral movement for maximum skills acquisition, create continuous cycles of promotion, and give employees the tools they need to manage their own careers.

According to Deloitte, employees want more flexibility, autonomy, and feelings of engagement. Here’s what the ideal employee experience looks like.


Fundamentally, the employee experience should be based on an emotional bond of trust between the employee and the manager. While levels of trust are difficult to quantify, the good news is that once you accept the idea that culture and HR leadership are interconnected, the steps to HR transformation are logical and straightforward – with the right approach.

Design Thinking: Creating the Ideal Employee Experience

Harvard Business Review has described design thinking for HRM as a strategy that "empowers employees to observe behavior and draw conclusions about what people want and need." Design thinking places focus on the employee, and in this context, HR systems and strategies strive to create an employee-centric framework. Cisco changed its HR in 24 hours using this concept, and it can be applied to all HR groups.

  • 17 % | The proportion of executives in a recent survey of 7,500 global leaders who considered their current leadership capable of accelerating innovation and improving profitability.

The following pillars of HR leadership explain in more detail the concept of design thinking for HRM:

1. The Never-ending Feedback Loop – HR leaders must listen incessantly. They must understand what employees need to be productive, creative, and meet the organization’s mission. The process can be as archaic as walking the floor and asking questions or as technologically advanced as an open forum on Fuze.

Employees should have the opportunity to make suggestions, share accomplishments, or be informed of leadership decisions. But the crucial point is that the conversation must always be on, and concrete change must occur as a result of the feedback. Otherwise, any contributions are pointless, and morale will nosedive.

2. Ongoing Growth Opportunities – A significant component of the employee experience is career growth. The ideal employee experience is one that includes an upward career trajectory, but it must be aligned with the needs and constraints of the organization.

In some cases, an employee will max out development potential within an organization, in which case the natural progression is moving to another role with another employer. In other cases, investment in employee development pays off during an employee’s tenure with a company, and the relationship can continue throughout the employee’s career through networks and relationships. This could even lead to strategic partnerships down the road.

In-house mentorships are a development strategy that provide learning opportunities without hefty cost implications. They improve communications and boost a culture of collaboration.

As time and resources allow, companies can get creative when it comes to growth opportunities. Google’s Gmail and AdSense initiated a “20 percent time” program, in which employees were given one day each week to work on a work-related side project of their choosing,”

For more on organizational learning, read “Organizational Learning for Innovation – It’s Mobile, Agile, and Visual”

3. A Safe Work Environment – For employees to feel free to flex their creative muscles, they need a work environment in which they feel safe – one that is non-threatening and tolerant of diversity. Diversity is key because the intermingling of different perspectives drawn from different minds is the catalyst for breakthroughs.

Today’s workplace often has five generations from many cultures working together – Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen 2020 – and each individual should be equally valued for their contribution.

Real-time communication platforms – Cisco Spark, Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Facebook’s Workplace –  social media, and cross-functional teams encourage greater collaboration, inclusion, and team-centric culture. It’s important to realize, however, that diverse backgrounds and increased age ranges in the workforce will mean that not everyone will be able to adjust at the same rate to new processes and technologies.

  • 3x | The number of times that horizontal networks with a diversity of expertise were more likely to innovate than traditional vertical networks, according to Harvard Business Review.

For more on inter-generational and multi-cultural collaboration see “Could This Be the Greatest Era for Innovation? HR Strategies for Collaboration in the New Organization.

 Source:  Josh Bersin , 2016

Source: Josh Bersin, 2016

4. Employee Motivation Based on Recognition and Rewards – The extent of employee buy-in, in other words commitment to a company’s goals, is a measure of employee motivation. If employees sense that their efforts are not valued, they are unlikely to be enthusiastic about future projects. Recognizing and acknowledging contributions can go a long way to fostering a mutually supportive relationship and successful results.

Achieving employee buy-in can be as easy as explaining the context of an employee’s work and the importance of that work within the organization. As tempting as it is to try to influence employee buy-in with the use of carrots and sticks, monetary or other tangible rewards are not a panacea.

According to the Harvard Business Review, e-learning badges, points, or progressing through course levels can be enough to pique the interest of workers, and similar gamification strategies have become prominent corporate e-learning trends. E-learning games provide an environment in which employees learn, often without even realizing it, and provide personal development opportunities that enhance the employee experience.

  • 50 % | The number of respondents in a CareerBuilder survey who found that employee recognition — in the form of awards, cash prizes, and company trips — encourage employees to stay with a company.

5. Embrace New Technology Solutions – Design thinking is a framework for reorienting HRM. And there’s a lot to cover. But there are many new agile solutions that can simplify HRM using intelligent systems and the right strategy for transformation.

When considering any HR technology changes, however, decisions should be made with the input of IT specialists who understand the organization’s needs, the technology involved, and the security issues implicated. Systems should be installed with an eye to the future, and the infrastructure should support future add-ons.

Financial and accounting specialists should weigh in on the budgetary constraints, and HR leaders must understand what the changes will entail in terms of staff training and possible HR capital reductions.

HR leaders should also consider the possibility of outsourcing various HR functions, which might have fewer risk implications. The right companies have experts in their fields with access to the latest knowledge and up-to-date software solutions. Consultants can assess the status of your organization, define where you need to be, and outline how to get there.

In a nutshell then, for HR leadership for innovation, apply design thinking, an approach that has already proven its worth. From here, evaluate the culture and the corporate environment, and prioritize the employee experience. Because if you build a great culture, ideas will come.

Up next in human resources, Organizational Learning for Innovation – It’s Mobile, Agile, and Visual