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10 Ways the Workplace Crushes Creativity (and How to Fix Them)

I’m starting to think the word ‘workplace’ is a contradiction in terms.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me they do their best work in the early mornings and evenings, “because it’s impossible to get any real work done during working hours”.

This is particularly common among creative employees, many of whom bitterly lament being charged with delivering outstanding creative work – and then expected to work in conditions that crush their creativity.

In other words, these are people who really want to work hard and deliver amazing results for their employer. But they are being prevented from doing so by the very people whose business depends on their creativity.

Of course,you only need to worry about this if your business depends on creating innovative products, services or business models to stay ahead of the competition – and if you’re relying on your employees to dream up great ideas and put them into action.

If your competitive advantage comes from being more organised, efficient and/or cost-effective than the next company, and you don’t need or want your employees to be creative, then feel free to ignore this article, and thank your lucky stars you don’t have to get involved in anything so messy and unpredictable as creativity.

But if you are serious about making your company a powerhouse of creativity and innovation, here are 10 big creativity crushers to avoid – and what to do instead.

1. Trying to Buy Creativity

It might seem perfectly reasonable that if you are paying people a good salary, with lots of perks and bonuses, then they should deliver outstanding creative work in return. But this flies in the face of reality.

There is a large body of research evidence demonstrating that extrinsic motivations (money, promotions and other rewards) not only fail to enhance creativity but actively inhibit it.

The trouble with dangling a nice fat carrot in front of someone as a reward is that they tend to focus on the carrot at the expense of the task in hand. And to do an amazing job, they need to be 100% focused on the work itself.

The same research shows a robust link between intrinsic motivation and creativity. Intrinsic motivations are inherent in the task itself – things like pleasure, learning, meaning, purpose, autonomy and creative flow. In other words, creative people love to work – so if you make the work interesting and challenging enough, they will respond by giving you their best.

You can’t buy creativity – you have to inspire it.

Solution:

Set people inspiring, difficult, meaningful problems. Creative people love being stretched, and get fired up when the work has a purpose beyond just making money – so it’s essential that you really believe in what you are doing (they’ll sniff it out if you don’t).

And of course, you still have to pay them properly. The critical balance to strike is to reward them well enough that it’s not a bone of contention (and therefore a distraction), without making rewards the main focus of your efforts to motivate them.

For advice on using intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to raise performance, see chapters 5 and 6 of my free e-book How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself).

2. Punishing Failure

I once taught a workshop in a large organisation and included an activity where I asked the delegates to think of the ‘second right answer’ to a problem, based on Roger von Oech’s book A Whack on the Side of the Head.

Everyone froze. They looked like rabbits caught in the headlights. When I asked them what was wrong, they told me they were always expected to come up with the right answer, and were severely punished for making mistakes.

No prizes for guessing how creative they were. And yet – when they relaxed a little – they showed me they were perfectly capable of thinking creatively. It was the fear of punishment that stopped them from using this ability at work.

People and companies that succeed through innovation take a very different approach to failure. They accept it, or even encourage it, because they know that failure holds the key to success.

You fail if you don’t try. If you try and you fail, yes, you’ll have a few articles saying you’ve failed at something. But if you look at the history of American entrepreneurs, one thing I do know about them: an awful lot of them have tried and failed in the past and gone on to great things.

Richard Branson

The London branch of the famous ad agency Wieden + Kennedy encourages risk and experiment with its company tagline ‘embrace failure’, which has appeared on its blog, on an office sign and even a range of t-shirts.

Thomas Edison famously took hundreds of attempts to perfect the light bulb filament, allegedly saying:

I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.

But he got there in the end – and not through hard work alone. Apparently he was relaxing on the shore of Battle Lake, Wyoming, when he looked at some stray threads on his bamboo fishing pole and thought of making the filament out of carbonized bamboo. The light bulb is now a universal symbol for creative thinking.

Solution:

Encourage people to try new things and learn from their inevitable mistakes. Reward them for being open and honest about mistakes and failures – so that these are not swept under the carpet, causing even more problems.

Get your managers to issue two kinds of insurance policy when they delegate tasks:

  1. Act, then advise – for tasks where failure won’t have major consequences.
  2. Advise, then act – for tasks where failure could be catastrophic.

If you’re going to punish anything, punish failure to learn. If you don’t, the market will.

3. Micro-Managing

When the buck stops with you, it’s only natural to want to maintain control of the work, and seek ongoing reassurance that people are doing it properly – and give them plenty of advice on how to do so.

But creative people hate being micro-managed. It sets their teeth on edge. And it prevents them from doing their best work.

By definition, creativity is about coming up with a new solution – or a range of different solutions – not the one right answer (see No.2). If you entrust a task to a creative worker, you are not getting full value from them unless you allow them some freedom to execute it in their own way.

And it’s not just the ‘suits’ who use this creativity crusher – very often, it’s a senior creative who can’t resist telling people to execute tasks and solve problems the same way they are used to doing it. Which is fine if you just want ‘Mac monkeys’ – people to implement your ideas and flesh out designs to your specification. But not so good if you genuinely want to grow a creative team.

Solution:

Stop micromanaging people and start coaching them:

  • Define the goal as clearly and specifically as you can, and then allow people as much freedom as possible in finding their own solutions to the challenges you set them.
  • Ask focused-but-open questions, to direct their attention and draw out their ideas.
  • Give accurate, non-judgmental feedback to help them learn and improve continuously.
  • Hold them accountable for delivering to a high standard.

For advice on using the coaching style of management to foster creativity, read my free e-book Creative Management for Creative Teams.

4. Efficiency Drives

3M is a poster child for corporate innovation, and rightly famous for producing a string of successful inventions including masking tape, Thinsulate and the Post-It note. Yet a few years ago, this wasn’t enough for senior management, who resolved to build on their success by introducing the Six Sigma methodology for quality control and efficiency.

The Six Sigma ‘black belts’ discovered plenty of areas of waste and inefficiency within the organisation, and worked tirelessly to eliminate these. The result was a leaner, more efficient and cost-effective organisation – but according to a BusinessWeek article, a less creative one:

Efficiency programs such as Six Sigma are designed to identify problems in work processes—and then use rigorous measurement to reduce variation and eliminate defects. When these types of initiatives become ingrained in a company’s culture, as they did at 3M, creativity can easily get squelched.

(At 3M, a Struggle Between Efficiency and Creativity by Brian Hindo)

The black belts had overlooked the fact that creativity requires downtime, experiment and freedom to make ‘errors’. Cut that out and you cut out the opportunity to make new discoveries.

No, not every experiment will succeed, but that’s the nature of experiments. Every successful creative industry finds a way to manage risk. None thrives by trying to eliminate it. The movie industry, for example, spreads its risk by funding several films, knowing that one hit will cover the losses of several flops.

Remember Google’s famous rule of allowing its engineers to spend 20% of their time on personal projects? They wouldn’t be one of the most innovative companies in the world if they had lost their nerve and decided to eliminate this ‘inefficiency’.

Solution:

Accept that you can have either 100% efficiency or outstanding creativity – not both.

If you choose creativity, find ways to set limits on downtime and playtime. Google sets the limit at 20%, not 50%, and with good reason.

Make sure everyone in the company understands your strategic goals, and give them regular updates on your progress. Not only will this instil a sense of urgency and responsibility, it will also help them keep your target in mind even as they are playing around and experimenting with new ideas.

5. Banning Social Networks

You are paying people to work, not waste time chatting to their friends, so it makes sense to ban social networks during working hours, right?

It’s true that allowing people to spend time on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks means they will not spend all day every day ‘cranking widgets’, in productivity guru David Allen’s famous phrase.

But you don’t hire creative people to crank widgets. You hire them to be creative – and as we’ve seen, creativity is not 100% efficient. It requires idle conversation, new connections and sources of information – all of which can be found in abundance on social networks.

No company has a monopoly on innovation. Connecting to larger networks of bright, inspiring, creative people should be not only tolerated but actively encouraged, if your company is to remain relevant and competitive.

Social networks are a double-edged sword – they can enhance productivity as well as kill it. If you want a creative organisation, a blanket ban isn’t the answer.

Solution:

Make sure everyone understands the importance of getting the job done, and provide clear guidelines on what you consider reasonable vs excessive personal use of social networks and the internet in general.

Help them avoid avoid the social media time-sink by developing a social media strategy (and policy) that is aligned with your business strategy.

Encourage them to build their professional network by connecting with their peers on relevant networks, in order to learn, share ideas and best practices, and look for opportunities to collaborate to advance your business goals.

Teach them about time management for creative people (yes, that’s another free e-book for you) and encourage them to restrict their use of social media to times that have not been ring-fenced for focused work. If you prefer to watch video, here’s a time management training interview in which I explain some of the key concepts from the ebook

Give them tools such as Freedom or Concentrate to help them regulate their own use of the internet, and trust them to do this responsibly.

Make people accountable for achieving goals (see No.3) and challenge them if they are failing. If you have evidence that social networking is part of the problem, give them some robust feedback. Otherwise, assume networks are part of the solution.


Too Much Control or Not Enough?

The creativity crushers I’ve covered so far are all born of the same mindset – trying to control people by using the carrot and stick, micro-management, peer pressure, efficiency directives and restricting their internet use.

This mindset is typical of the Theory X approach to management, where people are assumed to be lazy, irresponsible, incapable and in need of constant supervision, bribes and punishments, if they are to achieve anything productive.

Basically, Theory X means you don’t trust them. This may not be a problem if they are doing repetitive or mundane tasks, but you need to know it is guaranteed to destroy their creativity.

The alternative is Theory Y, which assumes people are fundamentally honest, trustworthy, responsible and keen to do the best job they can. Even if you don’t believe this is universally true, it makes sense to hire people with these qualities. Because you won’t get much creativity out of people who don’t take initiative and responsibility for making things happen.

The funny thing is, some of the most controlling organisations compound their control-freakery by being incredibly lax in areas where they should exert much more control – if they really want their people to be creative. Here are five cases in point.


6. Amateurish Feedback on Creative Work

Feedback is a notoriously sensitive subject, and giving feedback on creative work is even more difficult than giving feedback on behaviour, for two reasons:

  1. There is always an element of subjectivity in assessing the value of a creative artefact.
  2. Creative people identify very strongly with their work – so when you criticise the work, they are liable to take it personally.

Get this wrong, and you can crush their motivation. And because motivation and creativity are inextricably linked (No.1) when you crush one, you crush both.

Get it right, and you not only make the work better, you retain the motivation and enthusiasm of your people over the long term.

Given all of this, you might expect companies to take the art of giving feedback on creative work very seriously. But to judge from the number of complaints I hear from creatives, this isn’t happening in many organisations.

They tell me about having their work dismissed with vague and inconsistent criticism, by managers and colleagues who clearly don’t understand what they are looking at. Not all of them are as bad as the Emperor from Amadeus, but some are even worse.

It’s fun to make sweeping judgments on movies and rock bands over dinner with friends – but not so funny when a few tactless words from a manager can seriously damage your business.

Solution:

Teach people to give – and receive – feedback on creative work in a genuinely constructive way.

7. Meetings

If you put six people in a meeting for one hour, you’ve used up six hours of productivity. So you might expect meetings would be rare occurrences, and when they did happen, to be high-octane sessions where people used a lot of energy to attack important challenges and achieve meaningful breakthroughs.

How many meetings like that have you attended recently?

Now think of a number of meetings you’ve been in where you have found your presence redundant for long stretches – and to judge by some of the sighs, blank stares and fiddling with gadgets around the table, you’re not the only one wishing you could be somewhere else, doing something more productive.

No wonder the most creative people can’t stand meetings

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals call meetings “toxic” and “the worst interruptions of all”.

Seth Godin says he doesn’t mind attending a meeting as long as there are no chairs in the room, which stops people lingering longer than they have to.

If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’

Dave Barry

Solution:

Ask yourself whether you really need to have so many meetings, or whether some of them are scheduled out of habit. Get your people to ask the same questions. Make it acceptable for people to ask whether they need to attend, or whether they can leave early.

When you have to have a meeting, ask how much of the agenda needs to be discussed in person, versus information transfer that could take place via email, written report, intranet post or wiki entry. Have a clear goal for the meeting, and for each item on the agenda, with clear next action steps agreed and recorded for each person. Then let everyone get back to work.

If part of the purpose of your meeting is to give people a chance to connect with each other, maybe you could do that in a more pleasant setting? A team breakfast, lunch or after work drinks will probably do more for morale, and stimulate more creative conversations than sitting in the board room.

8. Interruptions

When I trained as a hypnotist, I was taught that one of the easiest ways to induce amnesia is to keep interrupting someone. You’ve probably experienced this yourself – when the waiter has just taken your order, and neither you nor your companion can remember what you were talking about a few moments ago.

In his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock points out that interruptions and distractions have a devastating effect on our mental abilities:

One study found that office distractions eat an average 2.1 hours a day. Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all. People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.

Distractions are not just frustrating; they can be exhausting. By the time you get back to where you were, your ability to stay focused goes down even further as you have even less glucose available now. Change focus ten times an hour (one study showed people in offices did so as much as 20 times an hour), and your productive thinking time is only a fraction of what’s possible.

Amnesia and exhaustion – not exactly a recipe for creativity.

It’s no surprise that creatives complain interruptions are one of the biggest obstacles to producing high-quality work. They aren’t being prima donnas, any more than the baker when he says he needs a hot oven for baking, or the accountant when she says she needs all the figures to prepare your accounts.

Solution:

One person’s interruption is another’s urgent request. So to keep everyone happy, creative and productive, you need to come at this problem from two sides:

  • Interrupters – ask yourself whether it’s essential to interrupt someone now, in person or on the phone – or whether you could talk to them later, send an email or text, or put a note in their in tray.
  • Interruptees – let people know when is a good time/bad time to interrupt, and the best ways they can get your attention. If you’re terrible at email, ask them to leave a note on your desk or a message on your phone. And when you agree to do something, give a timescale, check that it’s okay with the other person, and keep your promise! The more times you get back to them on time, the fewer nagging interruptions you will get.

9. Death by PowerPoint

When was the last time you actively looked forward to seeing a presentation at work?

What percentage of the PowerPoint slides you see on an average week are covered in bullet points, text in tiny fonts, and charts that are impossible to read from where you sit?

How much time do presenters spend looking you in the eye, telling you something that matters and inspiring you with their message – as opposed to looking down at their notes or back over their shoulder, as they read the text off the slides?

Death by PowerPoint has been around so long the phrase is now a cliche, but that doesn’t stop people perpetrating it on a daily basis. Which is a crime, considering the power of public speakers to inspire and communicate.

You don’t have to be Barack Obama or Winston Churchill to give an engaging and stimulating presentation. And believe it or not, PowerPoint can actually be a very creative medium, as long as you disregard most of Microsoft’s hints about how to use it.

Solution:

You wouldn’t tolerate illiteracy in your copywriters, or innumeracy in your accountants, so don’t tolerate poor communication in your presenters.

Make it a rule that no one in your company is allowed to use PowerPoint until they have read and started to apply the lessons from Garr Reynolds’ book Presentation Zen. Or better yet, give a dynamic presentation yourself that explains and exemplifies the following guidelines for presenting:

  • One big idea
  • Three key points
  • One compelling story
  • One idea per slide (and no more than six words)
  • One clear call to action

For more advice on taking a creative approach to presentations, read my article How to Create a Captivating Presentation.

10. Email Run Amok

It’s amazing to me that some of the companies that have the strictest policies on social networks are the most lax when it comes to email.

I’m not talking about sending personal emails in work time – some of them are only too happy to monitor employees’ email. I’m talking about allowing people to send work emails in ways that produce inefficiency, unnecessary interruptions (No.8) and apathy.

Some of the biggest creativity crushers include:

  • CCing everyone on just about every message
  • using emails instead of the phone for urgent requests
  • expecting a near-instant response
  • not signalling whether an email is FYI or contains an important request
  • burying requests in long rambling messages
  • sending an email to avoid having an emotionally charged conversation (pretty well guaranteed to start an argument)

Left unchecked, these habits produce overflowing inboxes and a sense of overload. It feels impossible ever to clear the inbox, so many people give up trying to keep up with email. Others spend all day on hyperactive alert for email, inducing amnesia and mental stress (see No. 8). Meanwhile, important requests and information are slipping through the cracks in your business…

Solution:

Get everyone in the office to read Seth Godin’s email checklist – not to follow his prescriptions slavishly, but to start a conversation about what kind of email habits are the most effective for everyone’s needs.

Ask for people’s biggest gripes about email – and consider whether you could introduce a new email rule to eliminate these. For example, some companies report boosts in productivity and morale after instituting ‘email free Fridays’. Another made it imperative for someone to pick up the phone if an email conversation generated more than five replies.

Here are a few suggestions to get the ball rolling:

  • If you need a response today, don’t rely on email. Pick up the phone or go and see them. This means no one is under pressure to check internal email more than once a day (client-facing employees are an obvious exception) and can devote their time to more productive activities.
  • Batch process emails. It’s far quicker to answer 30 emails at one sitting than it is to keep stopping and answering them one at a time throughout the day.
  • Use email for correspondence, not conversation. Correspondents don’t send letters every five minutes. Correspondents take care over what they write, and keep their reader in mind. Correspondents don’t expect an instant response.
  • Take the conversation elsewhere, such as a conference call, Instant Messenger or intranet forum. Or better still, sit down in a room together. You’ll have a more productive conversation, you won’t be clogging up your inboxes, and you’ll all feel better.

How Much Creativity Do You Need?

Remember, you only need to worry about these things if you’re depending on the creativity of your people to help your business succeed. You’re running a company, not a creativity workshop.

If your business model depends on creativity, then watch out for these creativity crushers and use the solutions I’ve provided. And if you know someone else who is running a creative business, please forward them to link to this article.

But if you can afford to manage without your employees’ creativity, carry on crushing it.

Would you like your team to be more creative and productive?

If your team could do with some help getting creative work done in the midst of the demands and distractions of the 21st-century workplace, ask me about running my popular time management training workshop Time Management for Creative People for your organisation.

Over to You

Which of these creativity crushers have you seen in action?

What would you add to the list?

Any tips for improving workplace creativity?

Comments

  1. Brilliant, brilliant piece Mark. Can I work for you? : )

    I love your article at 99% on ‘Creating Captivating Presentations’ too.

    Sometimes I wonder how the perception of the ‘workplace’ became so… tragic…

  2. Thanks Steve, I’ll let you know when I’m interviewing. ;-)

  3. GREAT post! Love how you share the solutions, not just the problems.
    Have a great day.
    -Dan

  4. Thanks – I try to end on a positive note. :-)

  5. Great GREAT points. I work for myself as a landscape designer and gardening coach, and the section on efficiency spoke to me. It is definitely challenging to run my business as efficiently as I like while being as creative as I like. I DO need to allow myself more down time. Thanks for reminding me!

  6. My pleasure, glad it struck a chord for you.

  7. shellylove2002 says:

    Great article! Now if only I could forward this to my bosses……

  8. Maybe get a well-meaning friend to forward it… ;-)

  9. Great article! I always find it difficult to manage the control issue. On one hand you want them to have freedom to be creative but on the other you need to document their progress.

    • Thanks Tim. Yes, it’s a tricky balancing act… I don’t want to bash managers as I know the pressures they’re under to deliver. Glad it struck a chord for you.

  10. Fritzie says:

    This is a great, succinct article, but the people who need to see this sort of work and take it seriously are unfortunately never the people who read such things!!!!
    I worked for a large institution for a number of years that was naturally decentralized but in which the headquarters decided that their best quality control strategy was to institute as much centralized control and standardization as possible and to reward leaders at the sites who promoted the same.
    Extreme micromanagement and extreme meetings (often called trainings) were key tools, and feedback was on all the wrong things.
    Information was carefully hoarded and released sparingly. Everything was political.
    Even in the face of an obvious exodus of creative talent, the administrators were such believers in their new system that there was never a thought of changing course.
    It was heart-breaking (except for the fact that when one organization drops the ball, it does create excellent opportunities for others to step entrepreneurially into the breech).

    • Well, I can only write it, I can’t force people to read it – or take it to heart. ;-)

      I guess I’m writing for the leaders who genuinely want to promote creativity in their business, and are struggling to balance that with commercial pressures, and don’t realise some of their well-intentioned efforts are not having the effects they want.

  11. Great post. In addition to Freedom and Concentrate, I would also recommend a newcomer – Quiet (http://wireload.net/products/quiet/)

  12. This is a great post, I appreciate you sharing it! This is a good way to put across a point, you face a problem and come up with a solution. These 10 points I shall make note of them and hopefully they will prove to be useful. Thanks again!

    Diane

  13. Hi steve,
    Great work. Here again you have proven that you are intelligent and master.

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