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Gulf managers undermine innovation by stealing ideas from employees

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

In successful organizations, all employees contribute to innovation. In the Gulf, this process is undermined by predatory middle managers who steal their team members’ ideas while denying them any share of the benefits. The demotivating effect contributes to weak levels of organizational innovation.

Innovation is the process of developing novel solutions to problems. The complexity of modern organizations means that effective innovation requires leveraging the unique insights that each employee possesses.

For example, while the chief technology officer makes software procurement decisions, it is the employees at the bottom of the hierarchy who use the software daily and that are best placed to comment on its deficiencies, and to propose ways of improving that software.

That is why successful organizations have systems in place for enabling all employees to share their ideas about how to solve problems it faces. This include everything from rudimentary comment boxes to sophisticated ideation retreats.

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Crucially, top management in these organizations realize that providing employees with the opportunity to suggest solutions is not enough – there must be systems to motivate them to innovate. When an employee helps solve an important problem, the organization must recognize that contribution, be it through a certificate of appreciation delivered by the CEO, or a significant bonus.

This lesson has not been absorbed in the Gulf, where organizations are perennially un-innovative.

A scenario that I have frequently encountered is middle managers soliciting team members’ ideas, and when one arrives, the manager flagrantly expropriates by saying “thanks!” and presenting the idea to top brass as their own, exploiting their underling’s absence from the meeting. Alternatively, the middle manager will describe the idea as being lacking in some way and dismiss it, wait a few months, and then repackage it and present it as their own.

The mid-management hawk often steals ideas from employees further down the corporate ladder while giving the source zero credit, with the long-term impact being no innovative suggestions that can improve the business. (Image: AP)
The mid-management hawk often steals ideas from employees further down the corporate ladder while giving the source zero credit, with the long-term impact being no innovative suggestions that can improve the business. (Image: AP)

Either way, the idea’s source gets zero credit, and the persistence of this intellectual property theft ensures that employees don’t bother taking the time to think about how to solve a complex problem let alone sharing their suggestions with their supervisors. The organization’s internal innovation is disemboweled, and expensive external innovation consultants proceed to fill their boots.

Several factors contribute to this chronic deficiency in the Gulf. The first is that many organizations are able to thrive despite having low productivity because of the way in which hydrocarbon revenues circulate in the economy.

The competitive pressures that normally ensure that managers are competent are frequently absent, resulting in an elevated frequency of low ability administrators manning important managerial posts. These people are too incompetent to realize the importance of rewarding innovation, and instead fixate on the highly short-sighted benefits of stealing someone else’s idea and passing it off as their own.

Moreover, incompetent management at all levels are averse to innovation because they view the process of diagnosing and solving problems as a threat to their legitimacy. Since Google’s elite executives are extremely competent, they welcome their employees’ suggestions on how to improve productivity.

In contrast, managers appointed in the Gulf through nepotism and cronyism don’t want to hear from employees about problems and solutions because openly discussing challenges inevitably means drawing attention to their own deficiencies and shortcomings. This is a major problem in family businesses, for example.

The old-fashioned management techniques that dominate in the Gulf countries also contribute to the problem of low innovation. In particular, it is common for low-level employees to have zero access to anyone above them in the organization beyond their immediate supervisor.

Thus, whereas a historically innovative company like IBM will regularly offer employees the opportunity to interact with management from all levels and departments through open forums and by instilling a culture of openness, a Gulf company funnels all of an employee’s communications exclusively through their line manager. This provides the supervisor with ample opportunity to steal any ideas that may emerge, while denying the employee the benefits of brainstorming with colleagues from other departments.

Naturally, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the line manager is often the problem that needs to be solved by the innovating employee, due to the manager’s low administrative abilities.

Collectively, these structural factors have led to a culture of stealing ideas within Gulf organizations. Ask any worker in a Gulf organization how confident they would feel in getting credit for an innovative idea that benefits their organization.

The good news is that with the implementation of economic visions, organizational meritocracy is becoming increasingly frequent, denuding some of the barriers to innovation, and giving hope to labor market entrants that their employers are interested in their ideas, and want to reward them for their innovative solutions.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.