UCL School of Management is delighted to welcome,Ronald Bledow, Singapore Management University,to host a research seminar discussing ‘A Closer Look at the Relationship between Autonomy and Innovation in Organizations’.
I present two papers that scrutinize a relationship that may appear to be well understood—the relationship between autonomy employees experience at work and creativity and innovation in organizations. The first paper builds on the observation that the available evidence provides only limited support for the assumption that autonomy has a strong motivational effect on the creativity of employees. I argue that one reason for this discrepancy between theory and evidence may be that some employees respond with creativity to low autonomy, thereby reducing the strength of the positive relationship between autonomy and creativity. To explain whether employees display creativity under low autonomy, I examine the influence of their action-state orientation. Action-state orientation refers to individual differences in the tendency to terminate state-oriented processing in favor of pursuing actions that satisfy personal needs. I posit that employees who balance between a state-oriented focus on information that conflicts with needs and the action-oriented application of knowledge generate new and useful ideas when autonomy is low. I report results of two field studies and one experiment my co-authors and I conducted to test this theorizing. The second paper shifts the focus to the meso level of analysis and examines the leadership practices that support innovation. I depart from the idea of paradox theory that effective leaders combine loose (i.e. autonomy providing) and tight (i.e. autonomy constraining) practices. I specify this idea for the domain of innovation and distinguish between loose and tight leadership regarding the outcome and the process of innovation. Leadership tightness regarding the outcome sets the social norm of innovation and focuses employee motivation on innovation. With respect to the innovation process, the loose-tight distinction refers to whether a leader imposes weak or strong social norms on how an innovation is developed. I derive three competing hypotheses about the effectiveness of weak or strong social norms for how an innovation is developed based on self-determination theory and a paradox perspective. I examine motivation of employees as a mediating process and employee proactivity as a moderating boundary condition. To test hypotheses, a group of students and I examined the context-specific behavior of leaders and their employees during the development of 136 innovations. I present the results of this study and discuss its theoretical and practical implications.