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The Case for Creativity in Leadership

Brené Brown is not afraid to admit when she’s wrong. On an episode of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, she shares: “If you asked me five years ago what creativity meant to me, I would have said, ‘Oh, that’s cute, that’s fun; I don’t really do a lot of A-R-T because I’ve got a J-O-B.’” As an academic and researcher, Brown initially dismissed the role of creativity in all forms of work—but has since come to realize its importance.

The best-selling author of Dare to Lead is not the only one espousing the power of imaginative thinking. Today, most leaders would agree that creativity matters, and organizations value it as a top competency. The idea of focusing on and supporting creativity in the workplace was once seen as too difficult, too abstract. Fortunately, academic research in the area began to translate to the business world, and creativity found its way into the spotlight as a worthy endeavor. The benefits of creativity in the workplace are numerous, including enhanced performance and greater job satisfaction. Perhaps most relevant in today’s ever-changing world, generative thinking is the foundation for innovation and adaptability: keys to staying competitive in the marketplace. Without fresh ideas and an ability to pivot to evolving industry standards or customer needs, a company cannot survive.

Indeed, the COVID-19 era has brought the importance of creativity and adaptability to the forefront. Anecdotally, our firm has seen organizations that think outside the box faring better during this challenging time. Novel ideas will continue to be instrumental as we set a strategy for 2021, with more leaders taking a page from Steve Jobs’ playbook. Of course, innovative ideas carry inherent risk, and not all of them will be hits; however, we would argue it’s riskier not to invest in creativity as a resource.

First, Creativity Killers

Despite recognizing creativity as a critical competency to innovation and continuous improvement, most workplaces don’t do all they can to foster it. This is especially true in times of crisis, when we are more likely to shift our energy to short-term, practical solutions. Unfortunately, we’ve seen crisis (e.g., economic downturn, social unrest, and a pandemic) become the hallmark of the past year. So as you focus on enhancing creativity, it’s just as critical to recognize the barriers. Asking your teams to jump into 2021 with fresh ideas may be unrealistic unless that process is supported. In fact, one of the more prevalent side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been on individual burnout. A study by Mental Health America and FlexJobs found that 40% of surveyed employees have experienced burnout this year alone. Three times as many report poorer mental health than they did before the pandemic.

What does this mean for creativity? The pervasive fears of job loss and failure, as well as chronic stress, that have defined many workplaces for the past year are inherently prohibitive to risk-taking and divergent thinking. There’s evidence that the ongoing emotional strain narrows our perspective and limits our capacity to be strategic. In times of stress, our instinct is to laser focus on what is in front of us and react. This ultimately limits our ability to think proactively, i.e., look into the future and imagine what could be. In short, when our to-do lists seem never-ending, we are far more likely to engage in transactional, less-intellectually-taxing work in an effort to simply get things off our plate.

We have also largely been less exposed to the same degree of stimulation than we were pre-pandemic. Research has shown that creativity is enhanced when we are exposed to new situations and variety. If we haven’t been intentional about seeking inspiration or novelty, we reinforce the cycle of monotonous (i.e., “uncreative”) thinking.

Workplace culture is another common barrier to creativity. Managers—many of whom believe they encourage creative thought—undermine it on a daily basis by reacting negatively to new ideas. In fact, they’re often lauded as great critical thinkers for quickly poking holes in arguments. Creativity takes time and requires risk. It requires the safety net of knowing newly-formed ideas won’t be immediately shot down. Otherwise, the creative process stalls before it can even begin.

Creativity Enhancers

So 2020 (and arguably, the first days of the new year) have made conditions ripe for stifling creativity. What are employers to do?

Leaders have had to adapt, and the way we work has changed – but not necessarily for the worse. In fact, this is an ideal time reflect on how creativity is fostered in your organization, because chances are some of those pandemic-spurred adjustments can work in your favor going forward. These are some practices that organizations can continue to leverage to encourage a more creative workforce.

  • Re-prioritize and focus on the essential. We’ve established that nothing kills creativity as quickly as burnout and exhaustion. And burnout is caused by a perceived disparity between what we have to do and the resources we believe are available to us to accomplish these goals. If you want to make space for innovation, you simply have to make space—which may require sacrificing some low-priority work.
  • Relatedly, implement flexible vacation and PTO policies. These help to prevent burnout and create a more focused, satisfied workforce. This is perhaps the tip that employers are most primed to implement. Given the widespread move to remote work, allowing employees continued flexibility with where they work can carry the unexpected perk of increased productivity and a more positive employee experience.

Individual leaders can also set the tone for more creative employees and teams.

  • Cultivate an atmosphere that encourages “failing forward.” Research tells us that environments which foster psychological safety are more likely to encourage risk-taking, creativity, and general spaghetti-throwing. Companies with the most out-of-the-box thinkers create this sense of safety by facilitating cross-functional collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and continuous learning (think: seminars and sponsored training).
  • Consider modeling humility as a leadership quality. The hallmark of humble leadership is that it rejects rigid, top-down hierarchies. Rather, it embraces vulnerability and transparency. Humble leaders ask lots of questions, encouraging open discussion. They also readily admit to mistakes, which shows that freedom to experiment is allowed.
  • Encourage creative outlets, in and out of work. There is reason to believe a happy worker is a productive worker, so how does one foster engagement and joy in the workplace? One method is to support job-crafting. Simply put, job-crafting allows employees to re-organize work so that they spend the majority of their time on tasks that are meaningful and motivating to them. It also sends the message that their leaders are committed to, and care about, their development—which ultimately creates a more engaged workforce. Pursuing passions outside of work also have the benefit of combating stress and promoting creativity. Leaders can model prioritizing hobbies and creative outlets outside of work hours: talk about your own interests, find opportunities for group volunteering, and create the expectation that after-work hours are for recharging (i.e., limit praise for working round-the-clock).

Creativity is not a panacea to surviving the uncertainty and challenges businesses continue to face as we transition into the new year. But the lessons learned from 2020 have taught us it is a characteristic of individuals and organizations that will be indispensable to success moving forward. To call upon another quote of Brené’s: “The level of collective courage in an organization is the absolute best predictor of that organization’s ability to be successful.”

We’d add “collective creativity” to that.

How is your organization cultivating and promoting creativity during this time? How are you exemplifying it as a leader? Tell us in the comments below!

This post was co-authored by Paul Goetz.

About Jasmin Martinez

Jasmin joined Vantage in 2017 through its Intern Program, where she assisted in the quality control of client deliverables, data management, and assessment preparation. As an associate consultant, Jasmin continues to hone her skills in individual assessment, client feedback administration, and leadership development. In both roles, she has enjoyed leveraging her research background through data analysis and interpretation. She also has experience consulting with nonprofit organizations to create team engagement plans. Jasmin is passionate about research that focuses on women's experiences in the workplace, workgroup dynamics, and diversity and inclusion.

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