Here’s the No. 1 Personal Trait Innovative People Have

When you think about what personal traits one needs to be innovative, you might think of intelligence, passion, logic or creativity. You might wonder if being more left-brained or right-brained leads to brighter ideas and stronger processes.

But you would be missing the mark.

Over the last year, Pierpont and the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin have been conducting a joint research study on defining expertise in innovation, as part of a five-year research endowment. Throughout more than 60 interviews with innovation leaders at well-known companies, one personal trait came up again and again: empathy.

Above and beyond, the experts we interviewed said that empathy – the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see the world through their eyes – proved to be more influential than any other personal quality in spurring innovative ideas.

The B2C sector is already seeing empathy being practiced in the form of User Experience (UX) and Customer Experience (CX), and communicators of major brands will say how important it is to align communications strategies with operational data and processes to make sure that messaging addresses the real pain points of their stakeholders. Excellent customer service models could be argued as practicing empathy as well.

But the companies we interviewed talked about taking this a step further, striving not only to see their work form the view of their customers but also other departments, lines of business and experience levels within the organization. They talked about actively seeking out talent who call out empathy as one of their positive traits or how they approach their work.

On an interpersonal level, many interviewees also expressed the vital importance of carving out safe spaces where employees can freely question, challenge or propose new ideas without recourse, such as informal roundtables or one-on-ones. Creating (and more importantly, upholding) these safe spaces builds mutual trust between management and employees, encouraging team members not to hold back on their ideas. These managers also talked about the need to shelter and protect teams working on innovation projects, in order to discourage premature judgments or unhelpful input on the initiative.

In addition to creating a safe space for employees to speak up and try new things, the research also underscored the immense impact of appropriate peer recognition for hard work, regardless of outcome. Some of the Innovation Directors and Chief Innovation Officers we interviewed believed that the sole purpose of their role was to champion the good work of others across the firm. By voraciously seeking out and recognizing hard efforts, new ideas, and innovative practices at all levels of the company, managers create a positive feedback loop that helps employees understand their concrete role in advancing the organization and its goals.

But the best part about empathy is that it’s something that teams and managers can begin practicing immediately. All it requires is paying closer attention to the world around you, taking the time to try to understand the impact of your work from the point of view of another – a team member, another department, a customer, a competitor. It means asking more and better questions of others outside of your circle and, when they answer, hearing them out.

Pierpont’s Sparking Innovation Series is a collection of management insights based on research conducted by the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin on defining expertise in innovation. The full collection of videos and blog articles can be found at www.Piercom.com/innovation. If you’re interested in learning more about the Pierpont Research Endowment or how you can apply these strategies to your business, drop us a line at info@piercom.com.