A new study suggests that leaders who understand how to manage their employees’ commitment to both their organizations and their professions may be the most successful at motivating and retaining innovators—specifically engineers and scientists.

The research, carried out by Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, surveyed 255 academic science and engineering professionals working in 22 National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Centers. The study centered on “dual allegiance” among these innovators—their loyalties to their professions versus their commitment to their organizations.

A general assumption, says study lead author Sara Perry, assistant professor of management, is that these loyalties are always in conflict. But her team's research shows that is not necessarily the case.

Study lead author Sara Perry, assistant professor of management in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business. Image credit: Baylor University.Study lead author Sara Perry, assistant professor of management in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business. Image credit: Baylor University.

Two key findings of the study show:

1. Innovators can be highly committed to both their organizations and their professions, especially when they understand their role in the organization’s success.

“The strongest positive relationship between innovation orientation and organizational commitment emerged among researchers who perceived high role significance and worked in highly productive organizations,” the study notes. The study showed that this high commitment to both organization and profession occurred most among the “senior ranks,” such as associate and full professors in academia.

2. Highly innovative people are more committed to their organizations, and less committed to their professions, when those organizations are doing well and the innovators know that their work contributes to that success.

“When the organization successfully meets its goals, and managers communicate effectively about individual contributions to that success, loyalty from highly innovative researchers may shift toward that organization and potentially away from the profession,” the study notes.

When organizational success was not as high, however, professional commitment was stronger than organizational commitment. But Perry says she and her team saw opportunities for managers to take steps to bring the “allegiance” balance back toward the organization.

“As leaders in research organizations try to capitalize on the innovative tendencies of their employees, they may wish to design policies and procedures that support preferences for creative, out-of-the-box work styles,” the researchers suggest.

Additional suggestions from the study include:

· Making sure the innovators know that their personal goals align with organizational goals;

· Emphasizing small wins and victories, and simulating organizational success in other ways;

· Protecting innovators from bureaucracy.

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