“Productivity is down. Waste is up.” My boss paused and took the time to glare individually at me and the other supervisors. “Tell me—how is it we’re running slower and screwing up more?” he asked.
One of my colleagues started to answer. “I don’t want to hear it,” my boss shouted. “Can’t you recognize a rhetorical question when you hear one? Here’s all I want to know: Who wants to lose their job first? I’m under pressure to cut costs and firing a few of you would be a great start.”
Then he took a deep breath, held out his hands palms down as if to calm himself down, and said, “Okay. Moving on. Let’s come up with ideas for how we can create a new employee skills training and compensation model.”
Imagine how that little brainstorming session went.
If you think necessity is the mother of invention, you’re wrong. Necessity can overcome caution or inhibition and allow us to try something we may otherwise not have tried, but necessity doesn’t make us more creative. When we need to do something that means something’s wrong, and when we’re under stress we typically fall back on the tried and often not so true—and kick ourselves later for not being more innovative or creative.
If that happens to you, don’t feel bad. The problem isn’t a lack of willpower or laser-like focus.
The problem is chemistry. Your body reacts to stress in the same basic way it reacts to a threat. Stress triggers a squirt of cortisol into your neo-cortex (the part of your brain where higher-level thinking occurs). Cortisol triggers the fight or flight mechanism, turning your focus to the problem you’re currently facing.
Think about the last time you felt scared or threatened: Your heart rate spiked, your hands tingled… and all you could focus on was whatever threatened you. Creativity naturally goes out the window when all you can think about is getting through the next few minutes.
(Oddly enough, social rejection can “hurt” just as badly as physical pain. A University of Michigan study showed that the same areas of the brain that respond to physical pain also respond to social rejection.)
So what’s the easiest way to be more creative? Decrease stress.
That’s why it’s also the hardest way to be more creative. Turning off stress isn’t as easy as turning off a switch. But there are steps you can take.
If you manage people, here’s how to take advantage of biology and foster creativity:
- Recognize the power of compliments and praise. Appreciation also triggers a physiological response; a mixture of serotonin and oxytocin is squirted into the brain, heightening feelings of self-esteem and stimulating teamwork and creativity. If you want employees to be creative they must first feel good about themselves—as a leader, that’s your biggest priority job.
- Go upside even in the face of downsides. Many people only ask for ideas when times are tough, but that is the worst time to expect employees to be more creative. (You may hear ideas they’ve already thought of, but they’re unlikely to come up with new ideas when their goal is, say, to avoid being laid off.) Find a way to reframe the situation so employee creativity leads to a perceived positive outcome instead of the avoidance of a negative outcome.
- Adopt a few ideas. A sincere compliment—and isn’t adopting an idea the most sincere compliment of all—makes it much more likely a behavior will occur again in the future. Never ask for ideas unless you’re willing to implement the good ideas you receive.
And if you want to be more creative:
- First, eliminate your major stresses. I know that’s not easy, but you’ll never think of great new ideas if you don’t deal with old problems—and the more stress caused by a problem the less likely you’ll be to come up with a great solution. (That’s why a “big idea” never comes to you when you most feel you need one.) Buckle down and do the hard work necessary to overcome whatever is causing you to feel stressed. That’s the only way to get your most creative state.
- Get out. Higher-level thinking is hard—and takes up a lot of energy. That’s why establishing great habits is so powerful: We don’t have to think, we can just do. But that’s also a problem since we’ve also trained ourselves to use the patterns we’ve developed. The best way to break out of a pattern “rut” is to break from your routine. Get up an hour early, sit on your porch, and just think. Or go for a walk at night. Do something you normally don’t do. And if you really feel stuck…
- Borrow freely. All around you, businesses and people are doing things really well. Sometimes the best innovations, at least to you and your business, only require that you be willing to learn from the success of others. Remember, as long as it’s new to you, it’s still new.