Are people really afraid to use their creative skills in the workplace?


Why This is a Dilemma

There’s every reason to believe that people are frequently more creative when they are not at work. Whether that’s because they have the freedom of expression or something else – it’s difficult to tell immediately.

So why is it that in the workplace they tend to bury those creative streaks? Is it a desire to conform to some unspoken code of conduct? Perhaps the fear of being reprimanded (or worse) is playing on the mind?

Whatever the reasons it truly is a dilemma because organisations NEED that creativity, perhaps now more than ever.

Recognising the Need

If you want to change the situation then the first thing that is required is for the organisation to openly recognise the need for creativity in the first place. That’s driven by a number of factors:

1)   The response to change is ever demanding

Just when we thought one change was safely navigated another springs upon us. In fact they have a nasty habit of overlapping. So why confine the definition of response to a few brains at the head of the organisation? Surely it is better to have the entire organisation on the lookout and coming up with answers.

You’ve no doubt been told or heard the phrase “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”. It’s a fair statement to make but unless the people to whom it is addressed are allowed to get creative, the speaker might as well have said nothing at all. Let this one sink in. Ask the person seeking solutions just how much they are prepared to allow creativity to work its magic. The likely answer will be that they either hadn’t thought about it or possibly that in their mind being creative is not a suitable approach to a serious problem.

If that’s the case then they should know that creativity delivers better solutions simply by getting people to enable their brains to function more effectively. It’s well-known amongst those of us who specialise in this field, the problem is that not everyone is prepared to give it a try.

2)   New ways have to be found as new problems arise

As the saying goes, “if you keep doing the same old things you are going to get the same old results”. Yet we know that new problems can arise out of the blue. (You only have to look at the chaos caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to see a classic example.)

So the pressure here is to have an organisation that possesses agility when it is needed. Yet management cannot know how or when that will occur. So building rigid structures and processes aren’t going to be enough. Instead there needs to be a culture that people feel comfortable with and within which they can operate without always having to ask permission. In the workplace people should be treated as adults. Yet frequently the actions of those in charge can be better seen as either Parental or Childish in terms of Transactional Analysis. Neither is helpful.

Instead there is a need to allow adults to make adult decisions. That includes being accountable but it doesn’t necessarily mean being hide-bound by rules and directives. So those in control need to recognise that this is a component that needs flexibility and you won’t get that if you don’t allow people to be creative.

3)   No one individual has all the answers

Never mind one person, frequently not even a group running the organisation has the answers for the challenges faced. So letting people get creative is going to be the ONLY way to surface options. The answer is a coherent team approach with very flat management structures and a lot of dialogue.

My Organisation Doesn’t Allow It

I hear that quite a lot and it usually means that people don’t feel empowered, never mind allowed to be creative. The two frequently go hand in hand.

If people are empowered – in ways that are meaningful and not merely superficial – then they will also develop the confidence to try new ways of doing whatever tasks or projects that come their way. Sure there need to be good governance structures and oversight, particularly when large amounts of resource are being committed. On the other hand simply telling people they are empowered and then rigidly controlling things at every step of the way with reporting requirements and permissions is utterly pointless.

The pareto principle also comes into play here. 20% of the effort may well deliver 80% of the required outcome. However if you don’t know which 20% then how on earth are you going to make headway? It really is stupidity on a grand scale not to allow teams their head so that they can find out fast. Just make the overarching picture clear.

As a result you are telling them that they ARE allowed to do things without seeking permission first (so long as you have set up a decent framework which offers guidance on when it’s sensible to stop and ask).

The only way to sense-check this is to run some scenarios – and when was the last time that senior management actually engaged in scenario-planning about operational processes? Time to get their heads out of the strategy bucket and start thinking a little more tactically. Just because someone has a seat in the boardroom shouldn’t divorce them from the realities of everyday existence on the proverbial shop floor.

We’ve Tried Empowerment …

If it didn’t work – then there have to be good reasons. Find out what they were, address them and try again. In my experience it is usually down to one or two senior people who either haven’t got the guts to let go of the reins; or who are too timid and have given way to pressure from some managers who feel their positions are threatened.

Don’t be surprised to find that it is actually mid-senior management who are the blockers here. They’ve climbed some way up the greasy pole and they may feel that by letting junior staff go ahead on a long leash might result in loss of control and as a consequence their own job will be on the line. On the other hand Supervisors or Team leaders in operations are frequently great ambassadors for empowerment – if only they are allowed to do it.

The only way to overcome this problem is to have an open debate as to why anybody in the organisation is blocking empowerment. Then work together to define a framework within which everyone is going to operate. Actually empowering junior staff tends to deliver better results, higher output and more motivation. All things that look good on the CV of the manager in charge – so why not just do it?

You can actually build a pretty good case on the back of bootlegging some time from across the workforce. It’s very rare for people to be 100% committed all the time, there’s usually some slack and it’s in those periods where you can encourage them to start thinking about novel approaches and so on. Forget that old chestnut “the Suggestion Box” – instead ask that they pilot things practically. A bit of trial and error will build confidence and fairly soon you will find that ideas and solutions are forthcoming before the questions are being asked.

Work Isn’t a Playroom!

Absolutely right. However it isn’t a gulag either. Just how much of either does the boss think is appropriate? Why is that? Why do they think that being playful as a mechanism for developing ideas is inappropriate?

These and similar questions are the way to go in challenging a leadership that frowns on creativity as a tool in their empire. If they want convincing then just look at the myriad ways in which people under pressure have devised how to overcome impossible odds. Whether that’s tunnelling out of a camp for PoW’s or fixing high tech equipment in the middle of a desert or half-way to the moon with only the materials to hand. Humans are hugely capable creatures when the chips are down. So let them practice and get even better at it.

If there is a playroom behaviour that has no place at work it is the one that mimics the idea that “these are my toys and I’m going to say who can play with them and what the rules are”.

Want Some More Advice on Where to Begin?

Give us a call and pick our brains. We’ll help you understand the basics and how to build on those as part of a free consultation. It makes a massive difference in the quality of the solutions and there’s much more to Creativity and overcoming the obstacles that we can share. If you’d like more information online, then you can also follow this link.

Rob Wherrett can be contacted at

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