Creativity is often thought of as an innate ability or trait. (Steve Jobs was clearly creative, I'm definitely not.)
Yet creativity, like confidence, can also be situational.
For example, research shows that creativity can be affected by circumstance. Makes sense; surround me with creative people, and I'm likely to experience a short-term creativity boost.
But here's a circumstance that doesn't make sense: Research published in PLOS One shows that creativity can be boosted by smelling cinnamon.
But there is a catch. Half the participants were told to smell a vial (containing cinnamon) and then complete a series of creativity tests. The other half were told that the vial contained a creativity-enhancing substance, and then to complete the tests.
The control group performed as control groups perform.
The placebo group, those who thought they had received a performance-enhancing boost of creativity, did significantly better on the creativity tests, creating more solutions and scoring higher on originality, flexibility, and "out of the box-ness."
Why? Simply because they expected to be more creative.
The "cinnamon effect" isn't limited to creativity. Take making a great first impression.
Research shows interpersonal warmth explains the self-fulfilling prophecy of anticipated acceptance; study participants who expected to be accepted were perceived as more likable. Or in non-researcher-speak, when you think other people will like you, you act more naturally and come across as friendlier, which then makes people like you more, since we tend to like warm, friendly people.
It's all about expectation: When you think other people will like you, they usually do.
The same is true for praise and recognition. Sometimes a compliment can be like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Praise an employee for deftly handling a customer dispute -- even though it's the first time that employee has managed to handle a difficult conversation well -- and he or she will start to expect to handle similar situations well in the future.
Again, it's all about expectation. As the researchers write:
A key factor in intrinsic motivation ... is the belief in one's competence.
A second possible psychological mechanism of placebo is to weaken inhibitory mechanisms that normally impair performance. Informal notions in improvisation theater suggest that the inner critic is a source of inhibition that limits creativity.
The verbal suggestion made in our study that the odorant increases creativity and reduces inhibitions may thus work through a reduced-inhibition mechanism and/or by increasing belief in one's competence.
Yep. When we believe there are reasons we will be more creative -- which also lowers our natural tendency to downgrade and therefore inhibit our level of creativity -- then we're much more likely to be creative.
Cinnamon is irrelevant. Expectation is everything. Belief is everything.
In yourself, and in other people.
Want your employees to be more creative? Use your own "cinnamon." Find ways to help them feel more creative. Use praise and recognition and validation to help them expect to be more creative.
But don't stop there. If you want to build a high-performing team, praise achievement. Offer constructive feedback after missteps or failures.
Most of all, praise effort and application. Praise results, but praise results based on effort, not on innate talent or skill.
Because by praising effort, you create a growth mindset environment, one where employees feel anything is possible. Where success is a matter of effort, application, and expectation.
Not innate talent.
Because we all have more in us than we think.
We might just need a boost of cinnamon to bring it out.