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.

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

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