The pursuit of unlocking creativity has led to many contradictions. In earlier days, brainstorming seemed to be the only way to generate great ideas. Now, we see that brainstorming may result in fewer ideas than an individual can generate.

The pursuit of breaking the code of creativity has also led to a cottage industry of nootropics (or "smart drugs"). Some entrepreneurs are even taking sub-perceptual doses of hallucinogenic drugs to jump start their creative mind.

Andre Walton, a visiting professor of creativity and entrepreneurship at the University of South Wales, has attempted to find conclusions that aren't full of contradictions. In an recent article published in Harvard Business Review, he writes about how leaders can resolve the paradox of boosting employee creativity.

The need to be immortal

Boosting creativity is a difficult thing to accomplish. There are no concrete tools that have stood the test of time. But Walton says we're asking the wrong questions; we shouldn't be asking if there is a perfect strategy, we should be asking about what motivates creative people.

"One of the fundamental drives that motivates people in their careers and personal pursuits is the need to be distinctive--to leave a mark on the world through personal achievements," he writes.

Psychoanalyst Otto Rank has said the human desire to be creative comes from an existential need to feel immortal, Walton says. On some level, most people want to be unique and have their contributions be remembered.

The need to fit in

While humans want to be unique, most of us want to belong to a group. Studies have found that in big groups (whether at the office or a social gathering), we are less creative because we're inherently trying to fit in, which results in us thinking and acting like the group members.

"[In brainstorming and team exercises], it's the group that becomes important, which is perhaps the reason why brainstorming has never fulfilled its original promise," writes Walton.

He explains that these two drivers--the need to be unique, and the need to be secure in a group--are constantly at opposition. The pull to think like the group and the other to be distinct are "undermining creativity itself."

Resolving the paradox on creativity

While we're being pulled into two different directions, Walton says leaders should be cognizant of this fact. There aren't any easy and practical tips to unlock the power of creativity. You can, however, try to provide a culture where that enables creativity through giving time and space for people to think individually. He suggests giving employees "space and freedom to flourish."

"It's no coincidence that the U.S., arguably one of the most individualist countries in the world, is also the most creative in terms of patents generated, innovation, and scientific research publications," he writes.

But as a leader, it's important understand that the "elusive and fragile phenomenon" of creativity can be affected by your leadership style, your culture and the levels of stress bubbling in the office.

Many companies want their employees to be creative, but they stifle the opportunity by not respecting the process in practice. The most important thing is to let your employees know that you value creativity, encourage it, and truly take each person's contributions seriously.

"A corporate philosophy that lets people know it's OK to be creative is critical," Walton writes," as is leadership that promotes the notion that everyone's creative contribution will be taken seriously."

Published on: Jan 27, 2016