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What Too Many Execs Don’t Understand About Letting Employees Be Creative

Peoplebuilding Hemel, Maylands Avenue, Hemel HempsteadPeoplebuilding Hemel, Maylands Avenue, Hemel Hempstead

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “How do you give your employees time to be creative at work?” is written by Lisa Safarian, vice president of Monsanto North America.

I no longer hear Def Leppard without picturing one of the smartest scientists I’ve ever met.

Let me explain. A few years ago, I had an idea to foster creativity and collaboration on the cross-functional team I lead. We had major challenges facing our industry and customers, and I knew we would need to come up with new ways of thinking to strengthen our business.

I was taking it back to basics. My brilliant idea: We were all going to sit by each other.

We had been spread across 20 buildings on a 200-acre campus. And our company’s technology wasn’t what it is today—no videoconferencing or skyping. I wanted to create the most high-functioning, inspired team in the company. How could I do that over email or conference calls?

See also: Why You Can’t Force Creativity at Work

So I asked them to move. They had the decency to quietly voice their protests. This takes me away from my own team, they said. I’ll spend half my day driving back and forth.

It’s going to be worth it, I told them. Your team will be energized by how great our leadership team is going to be. The great ideas are just going to fly off of our floor, as if we’re generating them by magic.

I loved it at first. I liked being able to quickly get a gut check or share a thought, and felt like it was absolutely spurring new ideas. But within a few weeks, I could tell not everyone shared my enthusiasm. What started out as a lot of productive hallway meetings, quick decisions, and relaxed dialogue soon devolved into closed doors or meetings in other locations as my team went to their teams.

At the root of it: Everyone needed more time. Juggling the demands of the job, travel, and personal commitments isn’t a new phenomenon, but one that I could tell was impacting our cohesiveness. How could we spend more time together as a team to build the type of discourse and creative thinking we needed without taking time away from something else?

Here’s the thing: While it worked for me to be close to the team, and helped my thinking, there is no one-size-fits-all creativity infusion. This was a diverse team with diverse needs. What I could do was find them time and help them be more comfortable with each other so they were willing to be a little vulnerable and go out on a limb and share some ideas.

For our next few working trips, whether it was visiting with customers or touring a site expansion, we built in some fun. It started with karaoke, and then a swanky expense account dinner—at In-N-Out. Then, while waiting for a flight, a quick game of trivia with barely known facts about each team member.

And that’s when we learned that the quiet, thoughtful scientist on our team would choose “Pour Some Sugar on Me” as his walk-up song were he a professional baseball player.


A few of those types of interactions, and the casual impromptu brainstorms I’d envisioned when I decided we should all sit together, became more natural. Soon, as a team, we decided we wanted to help our teams find more time to spend in the ways they wanted, instituting simple ideas like meeting-free Friday afternoons and email-free weekends.

With these simple moves, we’ve seen our engagement and creative thinking spike, and bring a positive impact to our business results as well.

The key in all of this was acknowledging that what works for one may not work for everyone, but everyone can find what works for them. As leaders, we just need to let them.