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Why It’s Important to Not Kill Creativity in the Workplace

Why It’s Important to Not Kill Creativity in the Workplace


By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

It is easy to kill another person’s creativity. If you are an artist or just know someone who is creative, you know that rejection is an everyday occurrence for creative people. Rejection is something everyone has to deal with in one form or the other.

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When you create something, you put your creations out there to be judged. But that judgement occurs in different ways — thoughtful and careful contemplation, a snap judgement or mindful discernment. In addition, your judges consume art from the point of understanding as a layperson, an expert or something in between.

The vast majority of people make snap judgements and are not experts. This is okay; you can judge the quality and artistic merits of a work of art by yourself or with some friends. But what happens when you have someone who has done something creative and you provide a snap, uninformed judgement? You will kill their creativity, their confidence and their motivation.

Creativity in the Workplace

Creativity in the workplace is a peculiar concept. We want employees to be creative, think outside of normal boundaries, buck the trend and take risks.

However, more often than not, the workplace is designed and set up in ways that encourages conformity, adherence to rules and tight deadlines. These things do not typically foster creativity.

How Organizations Kill Creativity

There are many ways for organizations and bosses to kill creativity. Often, the intention is to not prevent people from being creative; however, creativity is lessened or eliminated due to typical work expectations and policies.

According to the Harvard Business Review and The Muse, there are several ways that companies and bosses can kill creativity:

  • The culture is not open to new ideas.
  • Goals that are set are unrealistic and unattainable.
  • Leadership and managers do not acknowledge employees’ efforts.
  • Managers micromanage their employees.
  • There are tight deadlines that are impossible or arbitrary.
  • There is harsh, unconstructive criticism.
  • To approve even the most basic of ideas, workers must go through layers of bureaucracy.
  • Employees are burdened with a high workload.
  • Employees are expected to be experts and to always have the answers.
  • Employees work with the same people all the time.

Giving Employees the Right Motivation and Autonomy Can Lead to Creativity

Creativity is complex. When you read creativity research, there are many ways and reasons why some people are consistently creative while others are not. One of the most common reasons why individuals demonstrate creativity is intrinsic motivation.

Another way in which organizations and managers can facilitate creativity, as Teresa Amabile states in Harvard Business Review, is to give “people autonomy concerning the means — that is, concerning process — but not necessarily the ends.”

What Can Be Done to Inspire Creativity?  

In addition to intrinsic motivation and autonomy, there are a variety of practical things that can be done to facilitate creativity in employees while managers still have a deadline and control over the final product. Amabile says there are three additional actions that facilitate creativity: team composition, attainable goals and problem solving.

Team Composition

When you have a problem that needs to be overcome, you need a well-functioning team to tackle the issue at hand. The composition of that team is extremely important.

Generally, you cannot select a bunch of random people to form a team and expect magic to automatically happen. Team dynamics and communication within a team takes time, effort, and a lot of rapport, which why each person on the team needs to be carefully selected.

Also, each person must have a unique skill set that adds to the group’s knowledge base. Those skills must also overlap a bit so the group’s strengths and shortcomings are understood.

In addition, the team must also be diverse. The members must have unique perspectives, backgrounds, training and ethnicities.

In the same way that a team cannot be randomly assembled, you cannot assign a huge task to a lone wolf. In any organization, the success of the whole is based on teamwork and rarely are individuals assigned to tackle large, complex problems.

One individual may lack the knowledge, understanding and diverse perspective to truly tackle a complex problem, no matter how brilliant that person is. Also, assigning a large task to one person would not be fair and would be very stressful. Generally, people are not creative if they are stressed out and overworked.

Attainable Goals

In addition to the composition of a creative team, attainable goals must be assigned. If the goals are too lofty, not sequential or too demanding, then it does not matter how creative your team is. They will not succeed.

When you look at innovation and how and when new ideas come into being, the process of developing a new product involves steps, is time-consuming, and requires a lot of collaboration and communication. That is why any and all goals assigned to a team must be attainable, useful to the task at hand and actionable.

Problem Solving through Creative Thinking

After the team is formed and goals are set, how your employees approach the problems at hand using creative thinking is extremely important. As Amabile states, creative thinking “refers to how people approach problems and solutions — their capacity to put existing ideas together in new combinations. The skill itself depends quite a bit on personality as well as on how a person thinks and works.”

How a team uses creative thinking and problem solving has a lot to do with success. To prevent an organization and a manager from killing creativity, a team must be cohesive, goals must be reasonable and there must be autonomy to tackle the task at hand. If all of these elements are in place, it is then up to each individual to be creative.

Get Away from the ‘Business as Usual’ Mindset

If you want your team to go above and beyond what you think is possible, give them freedom, give them autonomy, and play to their individual strengths and motivations. Whatever you do, do not unintentionally kill their creativity by mindlessly doing things “business as usual.”

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About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.



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