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I’ve been writing about curiosity as one of the key components of creativity, based on The Power of Why: Simple Questions That Lead to Success, a book by Amanda Lang. Read the other posts here and here. Today’s post is about what kills creativity.
Amanda Lang writes that creative brainstorming sessions are often killed by the very thing that makes the rest of office life bearable: politeness. That’s right: if you want to be more creative, you must be ready to be more rude.
Here’s a great example: the boss brings up a really bad idea in your staff meeting. Everyone suddenly gets very quiet. They don’t know what to do with their eyes; some are suddenly fascinated with their own hands. You steal quick glances at each other out of the corner of your eyes. Surely someone will speak up and tell the boss why this idea won’t work? But no, everyone stays quiet until the boss asks who’d like to lead the project team. The office martyr offer in a timid voice.
Your team spends hours and weeks on a project that’s doomed to fail. Other, more worthy projects languish while you’re wasting time and resources and growing more resentful every day. Finally, months later, everyone agrees (to the boss’s surprise and dismay) that there’s simply no way to make the idea viable.
All because no one wanted to hurt his feelings in the meeting.
Amanda Lang writes: “Regardless of the type of test, almost all the time, people who brainstorm on their own come up with more ideas, and their ideas are also more creative and more original than the ones dreamed up by groups.” Politeness plays a big part in why we’re not as creative together, she says. We have trouble breaking out of our assigned roles; if you’re not seen as “the creative one,” you don’t speak up much. Everyone hates to interrupt the boss or someone who’s considered to be an expert or the Smartest Person in the Room. We don’t interrupt someone who’s on a roll, so our ideas may never get heard.
We wait our turn to speak and nod supportively at everyone else’s ideas and input (even the useless stuff.) We save our criticism for later, muttering under our breath as we head back to the office. We tell our spouse over dinner what’s wrong with Jane’s idea, but we never tell her. We’d rather be liked than be heard.
We only speak up when we’re sure we have a winning idea – one so brilliant it can’t fail. Which happens…never. We often don’t have the courage to offer a half-baked idea, a concept we’re not sure about – one that MIGHT BE WRONG. Wrong is bad. Wrong makes us feel stupid. So we wait for other people to come up with ideas.
And when the group is finally agreeing on a course of action, we hesitate to speak up, raise objections or concerns, or push the conversation in another direction. We don’t want to be the person who ruins the plan, kills the buzz… or prolongs the meeting past lunch.
We are afraid of being rude, so we don’t interrupt, which means we’ll never be able to disrupt (one of the other keys to creativity.) Without friction and rough and tumble exchanges, a team will almost never achieve anything big or innovative.
Is there a way to get over your polite block? Researchers have found that it’s the verbal requirement that inhibits people from speaking up. If groups communicate via keyboard without actually being in the same room, they tend to type over each other and react more quickly, more often, and more creatively. Even the act of writing down ideas instead of offering them out loud seems to remove barriers.
So next time you need some creative thinking form a group, encourage them to be rude. Interrupt, talk over each other, ask the group to think of all the reasons the idea on the table is a bad one. Or ask them to write down their ideas anonymously and allow everyone to weigh in – no holds barred.
It takes trust to build a team where people can speak up. And it takes building a tough skin. But the results will be worth it. Fresh ideas require fresh thinking.