Creativity killers


A piece by Robert McCrum on the secret to creativity in yesterday’s Guardian  ( ) caught my eye. He recalled a conversation with artist Grayson Perry (no shrinking violet) in which Perry said:

“Being creative is all about being unself-conscious; being prepared to make a bit of a fool of myself. In my experience, embarrassment is not fatal.”

It’s a message that all creative people need to chant like a mantra. Yet getting over getting your ideas out there is one of the hardest things in the world to do, it seems. Recent research by Yuan and Woodman (featured in April’s Harvard Business Review) provides some clues as to what is going on, at least in the organisational world.

From their study, they conclude that employees’ inclination to be innovative at work is driven by their expectations of performance and image outcomes. People weigh up what are the likely consequences of innovative behaviour in terms of whether it will affect individual job performance and their image positively or negatively. Creativity (generating novel ideas) and innovation (implementing them) is inherently a risky process. New things haven’t been done before. (Obviously.) In some workplaces, putting yourself on the line can feel like career suicide.

And that is Yuan and Woodman’s point: people need to feel safe to take the odd risk. The organisation’s management needs to encourage and support a degree of experimentation. The conditions need to be right for innovation to flourish. Indeed the researchers conclude:

“One major reason employees do not innovate is their fear of being perceived negatively by others.”

Daring to speak up, to challenge the status quo and to kick ideas around takes a great deal of courage. It’s unlikely to happen if new thinking is met with sarcasm, ridicule, and various other ‘not invented here’ attitudes on the part of bosses and colleagues.

A second reason that employees don’t contribute is that it’s not made explicit that it is expected of them. ‘That’s for R&D’ they claim. They don’t see themselves as creative types. Yuan and Woodman recommend that managers need to communicate clearly that creativity and innovation is everyone’s concern and in everyone’s job description.

Thirdly, employees believe that being innovative will not benefit their job performance. Recognition and reward for creativity and innovation can change that mindset.

David Bayles and Ted Orland remind us in their book Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking that being creative takes guts. In doing things differently, we have to battle with our very human need to be accepted and approved of.

“We carry real and imagined critics with us constantly – a veritable babble of voices, some remembered, some prophesied, and each eager to comment on all we do.”

But in the world of artmaking, as in the organisational world, the environment in which we dare to make our creative voices heard can help or hinder. Choosing to “risk our significance” (as Dawna Markova puts it), requires a safe place.

“In a supportive environment … approval and acceptance often become linked, even indistinguishable.” (Bayles & Orland)


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