Creativity, Choice and Leadership

Type X Y LeadersAs machines and artificial intelligence take over automated tasks, a greater emphasis will be placed on creative work–a human quality that is difficult for machines to emulate. Another distinctively human quality is free will, including our choice whether or not to be creative at a given moment.

As creative work becomes more important, it is equally important for leaders to understand how to motivate individuals to be creative.

Working with (and competing with) robots at work may be a recent development, but the importance of motivation is timeless. In his 1960 book ‘The Human Side of Enterprise,’ American psychologist Douglas McGregor proposed there were two distinct styles of management. He called this the X-Y theory. You can see the two styles described below.

Theory x (‘authoritarian management’ style)

  • The average person dislikes work and will avoid it he/she can.
  • Therefore most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organizational objectives.
  • The average person prefers to be directed; to avoid responsibility; is relatively unambitious, and wants security above all else.

Theory y (‘participative management’ style)

  • Effort in work is as natural as work and play.
  • People will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organizational objectives, without external control or the threat of punishment.
  • Commitment to objectives is a function of rewards associated with their achievement.
  • People usually accept and often seek responsibility.
  • The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

When these theories were introduced at the dawn of the knowledge worker, understanding how to motivate people was important. In today’s rise of the creative economy, it is even more critical. As we look for our teams and businesses to create more value, we as leaders need to leave the concept of authoritarian management and embrace participative management instead.

This places a different set of responsibilities upon today’s leaders:

  • Provide clear organizational objectives
  • Empower teams and workers to control and direct their own work
  • Encourage and reward individuals who seek out and own responsibility
  • Develop a culture that values innovative thinking and problem-solving

Creative environments like this are not only highly productive, but they will also be the places where more and more people will want to work. Daniel Pink has shared research that shows autonomy, mastery and purpose are the real motivators of people in the workplace of today and tomorrow.

As important work centers more on our creative capacity and capabilities, it becomes more important to tap into intrinsic motivators (autonomy, mastery and purpose)–and less important to focus on our authoritative leadership. It’s much easier to lead someone into their creative potential than to “boss” them into it. “Because I said so.” kills creativity, it doesn’t inspire it.

We have to remember creativity is a choice. Then we realize our job as leaders is to motivate people to choose it.

What Threatens Creativity

Even as businesses recognize the value of creativity (73% believe it increases a company’s likelihood for financial success), leaders struggle to foster creativity (61% of leaders don’t believe their company is very creative).

There is a gap between knowing what’s important to our success and actually doing something about it. It’s not as simple as leaders telling their people to be more creative. You first have to remove the threats to creativity.

To paraphrase FDR, I believe the biggest threat to creativity is threat itself.

You’ve probably seen Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs many times before. Have you noticed what is at the top of this pyramid? Self-actualization is where we achieve our potential, including our creative potential. The basis of Maslow’s theory is that each level of need builds upon more basic needs. We can’t feel safe without our physical needs (food, water, shelter, sleep) being met first.

Most of us have our basic needs (safety and physiological) met. But in order for us to be creative, it is just as important for our psychological needs to be met. If we lack confidence or a sense of belonging, then our creativity will suffer.

This emphasizes the importance for leaders to create environments where employees trust one another and do not feel threatened. Google agrees with Maslow.

Google agrees with Maslow. 

Two years of research by Google identified psychological safety as the only distinction between innovative and non-innovative teams.

When there is a sense that everyone is on trial, people are less likely to bring their full selves to work. In the name of self-protection, they will lay low, agree and try to maintain team harmony at all costs.

In contrast to focusing on blame, psychologically safe environments embrace mistakes and treat failure as learning. One surprising way to do this is for managers to show gratitude for the work and effort invested, regardless of a negative outcome.

One way global design and innovation leader IDEO fosters creativity is through rituals. Their tea-time ritual created a routine time each week for employees to stop isolated work and gather together. This break not only creates momentary interactions where creative collisions occur, but it also fosters a greater sense of connection and community. This helps meet the psychological needs of employees so they have the stability necessary to reach their creative potential.

Does your work environment create psychological safety and belonging?

What rituals could you begin to help foster creativity in your company… and yourself?

Pixar and “Fear Less” Leaders

Fear? Woody’s just gonna shake it off, shake it off.

Fear and Creativity in Emeryville

In his book Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull calls for a fearless culture. The eloquent and sagacious Maria Popova unpacks this wonderfully.

Catmull begins by pointing out that failure, for most of us, is loaded with heavy baggage — a stigma that failure is bad and a sign of weakness, engrained in us early and hard. For all of our aphorisms about the upside of failure and even our most elegant contemplations of failure’s gift, we still carry deep-seated fear and paralyzing aversion to it, to our own detriment. We are so terrified to be wrong and so uncomfortable with the unknown that we often opt for safety and security over breaking new ground.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Popova highlights Catmull’s acknowledgement there is also a misconception that one should accept failure with dignity and move on.

The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy — trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it — dooms you to fail.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

Catmull then places responsibility upon leaders to foster a culture that doesn’t stigmatize failure.

If you create a fearless culture (or as fearless as human nature will allow), people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted patways and then charging down them.

What Will Human Nature Allow?

Even in his strong assertation, Catmull’s parenthetical statement recognizes human nature won’t allow us to eliminate fear. It’s impossible to create a fearless culture since our brains are hardwired to employ fear as a means of survival. And while speaking before a group isn’t life-threatening, our brain imagines the repercussions of failure in dramatic fashion (“If I say something stupid, they’ll laugh at me. Then I’ll embarrass myself and lose their respect. Then they’ll discover I’m a fraud. Then I’ll be fired. Then I won’t have any money. Then I won’t be able to buy food. Then I’ll STARVE TO DEATH.”) So we can’t eliminate fear, but Catmull does give a countermeasure. Trust.

The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t. Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions — and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.

So, trust can help reduce fear. I would argue that Catmill isn’t advocating for a fearless culture, but for a “Fear Less” culture. Places where our levels of trust in each other mitigate the effects of our fear-riddled brains. Detox centers where stress chemicals drain from our bodies, creating room for creativity and innovation to thrive.

The Legend is a Myth

History has championed the concept of fearless leaders. Brave and courageous souls who seemed undaunted by the dangers surrounding them. They marshal the troops and inspire them to defy their fear of death in order to face the enemy and secure victory.

But the fearless leader is a myth.

And the benefits of pushing our fears deep, deep inside so we can ignore them are also inflated, resulting in compounded stress and anxiety.

Instead, we are in desperate need of “Fear Less” leaders. Not leaders who simply fear less themselves, but who cultivate trust amongst those around them. They earn trust and promote behavior in others that, over time, creates a culture that trusts more… and fears less.

By Virtue of Virtues

It turns out, creativity can be a byproduct of virtue.

  • Keeping our promises
  • Treating others with respect
  • Being honest
  • Responding well to feedback (even negative feedback)
  • Showing empathy for others
  • Being open and vulnerable

These basic tenants can help foster trust, reduce fear and increase creativity.

The beautiful thing is you can start doing this today.

You.

Start.

Today.

Is Creative Discouragement Lingering in Your Workplace?

In his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie shared his experiences visiting elementary schools to show them his sculptures and talk about being an artist. As he took time away from his job at Hallmark Cards to visit students, MacKenzie would ask the children which ones considered themselves artists. Most in the younger classes would eagerly shoot their hands into the air in order to identify as artists. But MacKenzie noticed as the class age-levels increased, the number of self-identified artists shrunk. Ultimately, the sixth grade classes would only have one or two brave enough to raise their hands, but even they seemed anxious about being “outed” as an artist.

MacKenzie recognized schools were discouraging older students from pursuing creativity and art, designating those activities only suitable for younger kids. Instead, older children were encouraged to focus on “more important things” like math and science. MacKenzie observed that most companies perpetuated this belief by placing emphasis on efficiency and productivity, while doing anything creative was seen as “play time,” and discouraged during work hours.

But creativity is becoming more important to workers and companies alike. A recent survey by Adobe shows that roughly two-thirds of U.S. workers believe it is important to be creative at work. Meanwhile 88% believe business that invest in creativity are more likely to increase employee productivity and have happier employees. Additional research from Forrester shows a link between creativity and business results.

82% of businesses believe more creative companies gain greater business benefits like revenue growth and market share. – Forrester Research

While these statistics are compelling, workplaces don’t become more creative overnight. Creative discouragement can linger in hiding spots and sabotage efforts to foster creativity and innovation.

  • Leadership styles can undercut employee creativity, sending a message that activity is paramount and employees exist to take orders from the status quo instead of trying anything different
  • Pre-existing corporate cultures can make environments hostile to new ideas and creative efforts
  • Workplace designs can hamper group collaboration and individual focus while handcuffing employees to spaces that don’t support or adapt to their work style

Considering these factors, what would happen if Gordon MacKenzie were here today and could ask the “artists” in your office to raise their hands? How many would claim that title? How many would feel safe to identify as creative? Would they say their workplace encourages creativity or would they admit it discourages them from being creative?

As individuals and businesses start to recognize the benefits of fostering creativity, taking action to adapt leadership styles, culture and workplace design could make creativity your competitive advantage.

Seth Godin isn’t Exceptional

Throughout life, these are the lessons many of us learn from our experiences and upbringing:

  • Trust should be given sparingly.
  • It’s better to avoid being hurt than to be open by default.
  • Take all you may possibly need (and a bit extra for good measure) before it disappears.
  • Look out for yourself, because no one else will.
  • Plan every detail before trying something because others are waiting for you to misstep.
  • The world is made up of two kinds of people: the exceptional (insert famous celebrities, authors, speakers, philosophers, politicians, scientists and artists) and then there’s the rest of us.
  • The game is rigged, so play it safe and stay in your lane.

As former pro baseball player Vernon Law stated, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward”

I recently completed Seth Godin’s altMBA program and then had the opportunity to attend a gathering of folks from the 13 alumni classes. What I learned from all this is… Seth Godin isn’t exceptional. I’ll tell you why.

The altMBA

The altMBA is billed as “… an intensive, 4-week online workshop designed by Seth Godin for high-performing individuals who want to level up and lead.” The classes pushed me to take risks and push my work out the door before I felt it was perfect. There were times I produced more quality work than I had previously done in a month… in one day. The individuals who collaborated with me on group projects were extraordinarily sharp, skilled, insightful and thoughtful.

In the end, I didn’t just learn new principles, tools and skills. I discovered an imperative to do work that creates needed change in the world. For me, this is helping business leaders transform their management style, their company culture, and their space into a competitive advantage—unlocking the innovation and creativity of their people and themselves.

This has cultivated a greater sense of commitment to doing this work with the mindset and approach of a true professional. This isn’t just a side hustle or a hobby. Regardless of whether or not it occurs between 9-to-5, this is my work. 

The Alumni Gathering

The timing of my altMBA experience allowed me to attend the first gathering of alumni in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. The event was held at the remarkable meeting venue Purpl.

The people I met were as remarkable as the venue. They were extremely inspiring, generous, compassionate, authentic, vulnerable and kind. I can honestly say I have never encountered a large (175 or so) group of people like this before.

When I attend typical business events and meet new people, the introductions can be awkward as we gauge each other–trying to calibrate the conversation to impress the other person, while not exposing ourselves to unnecessary vulnerabilities. That didn’t happen at this gathering. There was a common understanding between each of us and each introduction felt more like a homecoming.

Alumni engaging in energetic (loud) conversations at the beginning of the day. Apologies to those who are distorted by my panoramic photo.

In anticipation of the event, I really thought being in the same room with Seth Godin would be my highlight. I didn’t anticipate how rewarding each conversation with another alumnus would be. I noticed Seth milling around just like one of the attendees. There was no line cued up to shake his hand, get an autograph or selfie. I found I couldn’t pay much attention to him because I was so engrossed in the fantastic stories each alumnus shared.

During the “formal” segments of the event, Seth spoke some. But there was more time given to alumni who shared “generous propositions” (like miniature TED Talks), and to alumni panels who shared thoughts on leading, conflict management and overcoming their doubt and fears. The panels were not facilitated by Seth. Instead, the superb Provost of altMBA, Kelli Woods and altMBA Coach Marie Schacht led the discussions effortlessly.

To wrap it up, Seth led us all through an exercise and demonstrated that the leaders we admire so much (Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, etc.) aren’t special. Instead, he said, “You are.”

And that’s when my mind changed.

I have always thought Seth was exceptional… he’s not. He isn’t the exception. He has developed a set of remarkable and powerful skills, but Seth showed us that we can all develop these skills through deliberate and committed practice. This changes how I view everything.

Exceptional or not, I am extremely indebted to Seth Godin, Wes Kao, Kelli Wood, Sam Miller, my coaches Paul Jun and Gravity Goldberg, and the rest of the altMBA team. They have shown me the list at the top of this post is not reality. They are each an example of how we can live a generous life, giving ourselves as a work of art to a world that desperately needs more in its galleries. Others may hurt us in the process, but we can’t let that fear rob the world of the exceptional gifts within each of us.

So yes, perhaps life gives us the test first and the lesson afterward. But the key is knowing what that lesson is.

What Do You Want?

If you don’t know what you want…

  • The menu will tell you.
  • Your boss will tell you.
  • The items on sale will tell you.
  • Your spouse will tell you.
  • The best seller list will tell you.
  • Your iPhone apps will notify you.
  • The news media will tell you.
  • A consultant will tell you.
  • The authorities will tell you.
  • The next ad will tell you.
  • A televangelist will tell you, on behalf of God.
  • Your financial advisor will tell you.
  • Amazon and Netflix will recommend it to you.
  • Your friends will tell you.
  • The point-of-purchase signs will tell you.

The problem is none of these sources should know you as well as you know yourself. Therefore, they won’t tell you what YOU want. Once you realize this, you also can realize what they WILL tell you.

We’re all susceptible to the power of suggestion. This isn’t a big deal when you’re deciding between a cobb salad or grilled salmon. It is monumental when you’re deciding on a major purchase, a career path or a lifestyle change.

It’s one thing to say, “I know what I want. How can you help me?” It’s another thing to be a blank slate for anyone else to write on. I’m not talking about being closed minded. I’m talking about knowing yourself. Then you can be intentional about discovering something new.

Sometimes we avoid knowing ourselves. It could be decision fatigue or intellectual laziness. We may have placed our trust wholly on another person or institution. It’s likely related to fear. Fear that if we know what we want, we’ll ultimately be disappointed when we don’t get it. Fear that we will get it and it won’t fulfill our needs. Fear that we’ll make the wrong choices.

But the tradeoff for ignoring what we want is huge. We surrender our agency. We abdicate the throne of our own lives and let the list above take turns in the seat. This is a dereliction of duty. Not just to ourselves, but to others who need us to bring our whole selves to our work, our homes and our communities.

So, what do you want? Maybe to know that, you should start by wanting to know thyself.

The Myth of Bad Ideas

No such thing as bad ideas? Tell her.

“There’s no such thing as a bad idea.”

We say this often when we are soliciting ideas from others. I’ve heard people saying this during brainstorming sessions. We want people to be unafraid. We want them to understand there’s no consequences when they share their ideas. We’re telling them all ideas are equal.

We’re lying… and we’re wrong.

Lie #1 – All ideas are equal

No they’re not. Some are better than others. Unlike Santa Claus or the Boogie Man, bad ideas do indeed exist. They are hastily typed into emotionally-charged emails. They hang in your closet. They fill fast food restaurant menus. Bad ideas not only exist, they are everywhere.

Lie #2 – There are no consequences

I’m sorry, there are consequences to sharing your ideas. You may be embarrassed. There’s a chance someone will snicker, scoff or simply ignore your idea altogether. We all know this is true, so we should stop being disingenuous by pretending otherwise.

We are wrong about fear

Finally, no matter what we do, people will be afraid. We are wrong to expect them to be unafraid. We can only hope there is something more powerful than that fear, like the desire to contribute, to matter or to add meaning. We can mitigate the risks, but don’t waste your time trying to reassure people there is nothing to fear. The fear is there. It is real. Now, what are we going to do with it?

What can we do?

If bad ideas do exist (and we established they definitely do), then what can we do to help people share their ideas more freely?

Invite their bad ideas.

Let them know, “We want your bad ideas. That’s the best place to start, because bad ideas lead us to good ideas.” In fact, start the idea generation with a few bad ideas of your own. Get people talking about what could be done to improve your bad idea and make it better. Pretty soon, some good ideas come forward and develop.

Bad ideas are worms.

Nobody wants to eat a worm (not even a fried worm). But when you’re fishing, you need bait. So, you start with a worm on your hook. You put it in the right waters and you end up eating a nice fish dinner later.

So, next time you want people to share their ideas, don’t resort to lying. Don’t deny the existence of bad ideas. Invite bad ideas, because they are bait for great ideas hiding beneath the surface.