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The 3 main ways bosses stifle creativity (and how not to)

December 30, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

Forget everything you know about sparking creativity at work.

Many business breakthroughs hinge on the aha moments: innovative ideas borne of thoughtful collaboration. But often without realizing it, managers’ misconceptions about teamwork and problem solving prevent these moments from catching fire. 

It’s difficult to put a price on employee creativity, but business leaders know it’s valuable. In the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2020, employers cited creativity and problem solving as the most in-demand skills. In a 2020 LinkedIn analysis, employers ranked creativity as their most in-demand soft skill. And recent research from Deloitte says company leaders who prioritize creativity among their teams let them “flexibly respond to unforeseen problems and opportunities, making operating models more flexible and firms more innovative.” This lets a company stay at the head of its industry at a time when the evolving workforce is “upending many traditional sources of competitive advantage.” 

In a recent joint article in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Pronita Mehrotra, founder of learning platform MindAntix; Anu Arora, founder of the Infinite Potential Leadership program; and Sandeep Krishnamurthy, dean of the School of Business at the University of Washington Bothell, identified three key mistakes managers might be making that are limiting their people’s opportunities to hatch new ideas. 

Mistake No. 1: Rushing to solutions

Many leaders falsely believe slow, measured decision-making stifles innovation, and that the best answers are the ones that come the fastest. This can lend credence to the illusion that being productive means working quickly.

But this could be the opposite of the truth, Mehrotra, Arora, and Krishnamurthy write. Rushing to solve problems, especially the trickier ones, actually hurts innovation because it invites “premature closure.” Resisting premature closure means keeping an open mind despite already potentially having a solution. Creativity is much more likely to flourish in longer, gradual thinking than quick, one-time meetings.

The authors reference Facebook’s infamous early mantra, “Move fast and break things,” as an example of potentially incorrect thinking. It’s a call to action that can backfire if employees are faced with a layered dilemma that’s time-consuming to fix. Resisting the temptation to find a speedy solution, and instead pushing your team to continue ruminating on new ideas or perspectives, they say, is bound to result in innovation. 

Managers can also lead teams away from premature closure by encouraging them to arrive at “almost final” decisions, and then adding in additional incubation time specifically dedicated to just to sharing more ideas. If a good idea doesn’t emerge during this period, they can go ahead with their “almost final” decision, knowing they took their time. 

Mistake No. 2: Being overly critical without offering solutions

Most experts agree: Creative thinking is harder than logical thinking. It demands more of both brain hemispheres and is more taxing on working memory, the cognitive function that holds information for a short amount of time. As such, the authors write, creative thinking should be a higher-order skill. 

When presented with a new idea, it’s easier for their people to dissect and mull over the various ways the idea falls short, rather than to ideate on how it can be bolstered. Just focusing on a shortcoming means keeping things simple for the working memory. On the other hand, synthesizing multiple ideas, and accounting for various outcomes or perspectives, demands more. “Engaging both the executive and imagination networks, trying multiple combinations in quick succession to find a solution that might work,” the authors write, puts working memory to the task. 

In business and in pleasure, humans tend to view “critics” as more intelligent and thoughtful than “synthesizers.” In a 1999 Harvard Business Review article, two professors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, called the phenomenon in which people criticize ideas to come across as smarter or more competent as “the smart-talk trap.”

Pfeffer and Sutton pointed to a 1983 study by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile. Amabile’s study, called “Brilliant but Cruel,” found people who wrote negative book reviews were perceived as less likable but more intelligent, competent, and having more expertise than those who positively reviewed the same books. “Only pessimism sounds profound. Optimism sounds superficial,” Amabile wrote.

In a criticism-heavy culture, employees can be hesitant to voice new ideas. But companies, Pfeffer and Sutton wrote, can prevent this kind of environment by setting informal rules about how ideas are received and unpacked. 

“People are permitted to raise objections to plans and concepts, but they can’t just ask, ‘Why would we do such a thing?’” they wrote. “Instead, they must suggest how it would be possible to surmount the obstacles they foresee. In other words, the conversation focuses not on faults but on overcoming them.” 

Mistake No. 3: Overvaluing group brainstorming

On the surface, brainstorming as a group appears more productive. The social aspect of gathering and bouncing ideas off one another can feel akin to productivity. But Mehrotra, Arora, and Krishnamurthy say that nominal brainstorming, which is when individual team members think independently before gathering to compare notes, consistently trumps group brainstorming and produces double the number of ideas. 

In fact, despite good intentions, the social dynamics of group brainstorming can actually limit creativity. People may fear their ideas being shot down, miss a chance to speak, or even end up social loafing, a term for the tendency to hide in the group and avoid making a contribution.

To work around this, leaders should support formation of individual ideas before they’re posed to a group. And once those group huddles happen, they should ensure a baseline level of trust and support is emphasized among the participants. 

These are small and gradual but crucial steps for company leaders to take. Creativity and innovation among workers inarguably give businesses a competitive advantage and, per the authors, an innovation-focused culture can triple a company’s profitability. 

Avoiding each of these misconceptions requires a baseline of thoughtful, inclusive leadership combined with consistent efforts to improve at weak points. An organization can’t foster new, innovative ideas without the requisite internal structure and a budget that supports it. But investing in uncovering those aha moments are well worth it, especially in a time when workers may be less engaged at work than ever.

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