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How to be a Catalyst for Creativity

Ellen Whitehead | 1st April 2021

No matter what industry you work in, creativity is going to be key to working well. As a manager you want your team to be employing creative problem solving, whether they’re in a traditionally “creative” role like your design team, or an area where a creative solution to a problem might solve a more practical issue, like your opps or engineering teams. But how can you encourage creativity in the workplace? Well, neuroscience has some potential answers! 

Teresa Amabile (Harvard Researcher), asked 280 people working in various industries to record emotions they were experiencing on a given day. Her team then studied 12,000 journal entries and found that creativity is positively associated with joy and love and negatively associated with anger, fear, and anxiety. Put simply happiness and joy are precursors for creativity!

What is creativity?

“One day’s happiness often predicts the next day’s creativity.” The Progress Principle by Amabile

The first thing to quickly touch on is the question of creativity. What is it? Often we think of creativity as something that only artists or musicians use or achieve. But this isn’t the case, we’re all using our creativity all the time to solve little problems in our day to day lives. 

The Cambridge dictionary defines creativity as “The ability to use or produce unusual ideas”. So you can see that here your drawing ability doesn’t even come into play – it’s purely about how you think. The great thing about the way you think is that actually, you can change and influence this. To paraphrase a creative genius – “Some people are born creative, some people achieve creativity, and some people have creativity thrust upon them.” (Yes I did just butcher Shakespeare, I don’t think he would have minded). 

So in this context, we’re using creativity to mean the ability to think about things in unusual ways. Put together pieces of information from different sources and come up with a new way of doing something, or approaching a problem. 

There are a couple of things you can do to create an environment in which your team can think as creatively as possible. 

When you can’t be rational

Very basically speaking, the human brain has two types of brain structures, one kind that responds to external stimuli, and one kind that computes information. At The Happiness Index, we group these two structures into the emotional brain and the rational brain. 

The emotional brain tends to be dominated by earlier more primitive structures, which respond to danger. These structures hijack the whole brain and take away any ability to do anything else for you to focus on the problem at hand. This might be running away from a bear or facing a looming but unmeetable deadline. When we were regularly facing bears, this was a good thing, because you don’t need creative problem solving to beat a bear, you just need to run faster than it can. (For the record, you shouldn’t run from a bear, you should stand your ground, keep calm and talk in low tones, according to the internet.)

However, this complete hijacking of your fight or flight response is more of a problem in modern-day contexts. This is because, if your whole brain is relying on these primitive emotional structures, then you’re not going to be able to use your rational brain. 

These rational brain structures are where creative thinking happens. So if your brain has gone into fight or flight mode, you won’t be able to engage the creative skills you may need to come up with a solution that will allow you to meet the unmeetable deadline. 

Turn off the reptile brain

As a manager, the best thing you can do to help your team come up with creative solutions to problems is to help create an environment where these primitive fight or flight responses aren’t firing too much. 

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t allow emotions into the workplace. Quite the opposite. If you know the things which are causing discomfort, stress, or heightened emotions, then you can help to ameliorate these. As our Head of Neuroscience, Clive Hyland, says, “Today’s emotions are tomorrow’s performance” – with this in mind if you focus on making your workplace culture happier and healthier for everyone today, then you will reap the benefits in the short-term future.

What you need to do is create an environment where people’s basic needs for safety and security are met. This could mean a variety of things:

  • making sure people are paid enough that they’re not worried about money, 
  • moving away from a probation system where people are worried about their job security, 
  • keeping communication open and transparent so people aren’t worried that you’re hiding something, 
  • or providing a clear review process so people know when and where they’re going to get feedback and what the impacts are going to be. 

The less your team’s emotional brain is hijacking their ability to think, the more they’ll be able to use their brains rationally and therefore creatively. 

Default Neural Networks

Once you’ve got to a place where your team’s emotional brains are no longer hijacking their rational brains, how can we get to a place where they have the optimal chance of thinking creatively? This is where Default Neural Networks come in. 

Have you ever noticed that you get your best ideas in the shower? This is because you’re not actively thinking about anything else, and when your brain is “at rest” it takes a whole bunch of information that it had gathered previously and sorts through and processes it. This means that you’re able to make connections that you may not otherwise have been able to make. 

What’s happening here is that a specific part of the brain, or more accurately, a network of brain parts, takes over your brain. Neuroscientists call this network the “default” network or the “task-negative” network because it only fires up when you’re not actively thinking about anything in particular. 

Turn off your whole brain

So basically what you need to do to come up with these creative free associations is turn off your whole brain. Or at least the parts which are actively thinking about things. The main thing here is to take away external stimuli, what you’re trying to do is to stop giving your brain new information to process, so it can start working on all the stuff you’ve already given it in new and creative ways. 

Trying to get your team to stop thinking seems counter-intuitive, but there are a couple of ways that you can do this: 

  • make sure they have adequate time off and holiday time so they can take breaks away from thinking about work entirely, 
  • encourage meditation and mindfulness, 
  • take walking meetings and time away from laptop screens where people have time to process and not get too much new information. 

These kinds of policy might be hard to quantify in terms of their efficacy, but neuroscience backs it up. Of course, if you’re looking for something more concrete, Google’s 20% rule is built on this same principle. 

Be a Catalyst for creativity

If you want to discover first-hand how Happiness can engage creativity then you should check out our FREE Employee Voice 24/7 technology which allows your people to provide feedback to you whenever they like so you can create action plans to improve their working experience. This creates a happier, healthier and higher-performing culture… all of which is a catalyst for creativity.

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