Burst of Innovation – How Leaders Allow or Sabotage Innovation With Their Words

Leaders Allow or Sabotage Innovation

Our words are incredibly powerful. Oftentimes, we say things without really realizing their impact, and sometimes these words can have a negative effect. Whether it’s something we’ve said for years without thinking, or we’re just saying something out of habit, there are words that we as leaders use that can sabotage our innovation efforts. Thankfully, once we understand the language we use, we can change it to turn it into something positive. 


So, what are some of the words or expressions that shut down innovation, and what are some alternatives we can use to promote and encourage innovation?

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Words that Sabotage Innovation


  1. There’s not enough time.

In the workplace, there is a definite urgency when it comes to meeting deadlines and getting things to work. However, when we say things like “There’s not enough time”, we’re really telling our teams not to take the time to innovate and to just focus on getting the job done in the quickest way possible.


  1. We’ve tried that before.

It’s probably happened to all of us. We have an idea, and the leader shuts it down completely with “We’ve tried that before” and throws the idea out. This language doesn’t allow any room for curiosity and exploration to discover how this idea could be different from the previous experience.


  1. There’s no room for error.

When we tell people that there’s no room for error, the message we’re conveying is that they need to get it right on the first try. However, innovation isn’t something we often get right on the first try. What this kind of language does is it causes people to panic and revert to doing things the tried-and-tested way, instead of pursuing innovative ideas that may not be 100% perfect on the first try.


  1. People are watching, we’ve got to look good.

Telling our teams that we need to worry about people watching and looking good for them puts pressure on them to get it right, instead of allowing space for creativity to come through. In fact, I’m sure we’ve all found that when we’re worried about getting it right, we often actually get it wrong. People start focusing on being right and give up experimenting and innovating.


  1. I have information that you don’t.

This is an expression we often hear from leaders, including myself – “I have information that you don’t. Technically, that may be true. As the leader, from the position you’re in, you can see things in a way that they don’t from a different vantage point. However, using this language really sabotages innovation. It conveys the message that because they don’t have the full picture, you won’t take into consideration their ideas, and over time your team will learn not to innovate at all.


These are just a few examples of language that sabotage our innovation efforts. It may be well-intentioned, but more often than not, shuts down innovation. So how can we use our language to allow room for innovation and encourage it?


Words that Allow Innovation


  1. I don’t know.

This might be one of the most powerful phrases in any language. We often think that we, as leaders, need to have all the answers and be right all the time, but frankly, it’s okay not to know. When we admit that we don’t know, we allow others the opportunity to help figure it out, and this is where innovation thrives. When your team is not looking to you for all the answers, they will get creative with their problem-solving, and start putting out new ideas and innovation.


  1. Let’s give it a try.

Sometimes, we shut down our team’s innovation by saying we don’t have enough time, or for any of the other reasons. What we need to be doing instead is saying “Let’s give it a try. Let’s explore that further.” Language like this sends the message that you value what they’re saying,  and you’re willing to at least explore the idea. It gives them a sense that you understand they have put thought into their idea and have some rationale for it – and that you’re giving them a chance to share that with you.


  1. What makes you say that?

When it comes to encouraging innovation, my favorite question to ask is “What makes you say that?”. This is a simple, yet powerful question (regardless of whether you’re talking to someone who is coming up with ideas or someone who is shutting them down!) because it offers them the opportunity to bring their ideas to life. With this question, you give your team members the chance to explore further and dive even deeper into their ideas. That’s what makes this question so effective in driving innovation, is that instead of taking what they say at face value, you push them to take it to the next level.


Our language can have a profound impact on allowing or sabotaging innovation in our teams and organizations. In some ways, it’s in the moments that we feel like we know the answer and want to tell our teams what to do, that we need to take a pause and think carefully about the words we use. With a little bit of awareness and by choosing our words intentionally, we can drive more of the innovation we need to keep moving forward.


Watch the video to learn how leaders allow or sabotage innovation with their words.