Right work environment can boost employee creativity
I always marvel at those rare individuals whose pores sweat creativity without the slightest effort. I’ve always believed that they were endowed by their creator with a special, almost supernatural talent that was denied the rest of us mere mortals. That is not necessarily so. The truth is that creativity is more often the product of the right environment and a carefully contrived set of conditions.
What is creativity?
It’s more than the unique and compelling idea, thought or concept. At the core, it involves building a relationship between two disparate entities finding the connecting point that, in turn, leads to the creative solution. In such a world, problem finding becomes just as important as problem solving. It’s also one of the reasons business environments, where lack of questioning and autonomy are the norm, tend to be noncreative.
As one would expect, researchers now tell us that there is a direct link between the physiology of the brain and the creativity of the individual. As expected, stress is the big killer, stress caused by time constraints and perceived lack of control. Evaluative activity, or being judged, is particularly stressful in that it activates the limbic system. When the limbic system is activated, the cerebral cortex shuts down, thereby inhibiting creative production. The best antidotes: brainstorming, working in teams and increasing fun.
And let’s not forget the power of exercise to boost brain power and stop stress in its tracks. Research clearly shows that regular physical activity improves reaction time, concentration, creativity and mental vigor. It’s simply a matter of getting more blood and more oxygen to the brain.
Conversely, lack of sleep and/or relaxation act as toxic counterweights to the creative state of mind.
How do we become creative?
It starts with leadership. Creativity thrives in a culture where managers lead by example; by coaching, not directing or demanding; by giving employees ample opportunity to discover. A staff that understands the leader’s priorities and goals and is able to develop a clear feel for the why rather than the what of the leader’s requirement.
"A leader’s expectations significantly determine creative output," said AmyK Hutchens, president of AmyK International, specializing in neuro-sales technique. "The best leaders induce creativity by communicating principles, not setting rules."
Hutchens also notes that creativity can only blossom in environments where the attitude prevails from the top down. "Authentic creativity doesn’t just happen on casual Friday. Why shouldn’t every day be Friday?" she asks.
Creating creative environments
The advice is elementary. Allow autonomy within the working environment. Believe in strong communication, so that everyone clearly understands the culture, principles and goals of the task or the exercise. Constantly provide people with new challenges, new tools, new situations, everything from training in new technique to Outward Bound courses that bind.
Put people in situations where they can learn from new experiences and apply that learning to their jobs. Ironically, in recessionary times when they’re needed most, the creative-building programs are the first to receive the ax. Yet it is that perceived creative "fluff" that is most needed for survival.
Take the time and effort to hire properly. Lessen the preoccupation with job descriptions.
Support cross-departmental team formation for problem solving. Encourage staff to continually experience that which is new and most often unrelated to the job itself, for example, travel. Be willing to hire the "third eye," the outside help or perspective that is quite often needed to break the internal sclerosis.
Institute an "asking" culture. Always be probing for what the competition is doing and how we can be better, in spite of how good we are. Organizations that excel creatively tend to focus on the things that count, setting high expectations and constantly challenging the already successful status quo. Their concern is with how high is high, rather than setting policy about leaving dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.
Contrary to the admonishments of the cynics, creativity flows most freely from a structured environment. Space must be defined, parameters laid down, goals and objectives clearly enumerated, but within that structure, independence must be allowed to explore, to have the freedom to fail.
As Hutchens notes, "It’s not just achieving the goal but what you discover on the journey."
Make allowances for the brain. The physiologists tell us that the brain works best in 20-minute cycles. Go on too long, and it switches off. It’s one of the reasons why most team meetings are failures.
Ultimately, the most creative organizations are those that are driven by leaders who "stimulate rather than tell." They understand that creativity derives naturally from pollination rather than dictate or fiat. Those same leaders are driven by fear: not the fear of failure, but rather the fear of not taking the chance.
Alf Nucifora is an Atlanta-based marketing consultant.