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Do you feel under pressure to be more creative at work?  If you’re nodding your head, you’re in good company.  Studies have recently found that creativity is now one of the top skills most workplaces are looking for in their employees, as they struggle to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive world.

But do you ever secretly worry that you lack the artistic flair for creativity?  After all, as many employees quietly confess during training workshops: “Not all of us can paint or draw.” 

“The good news is that creativity comes in all sorts of forms,” said Sue Langley, a leading global business consultant and advisor on practical workplace applications of neuroscience, emotional intelligence, and positive psychology when I interviewed her recently.   “The most common type of creativity is simply allowing our brains the space to imagine different connections, patterns and possibilities.”

So why might being more creative feel so hard? 

“When we’re younger being curious about what’s possible, testing different ideas and trying new things come naturally.  But as we become older our ability to be creative can become narrowed as we lose our curiosity and rely more on our experience of what we’ve previously learned,” explained Sue. 

“This is why allowing people the space to daydream and imagine without feeling constrained or fearing failure is the key to boosting creativity and fostering innovation in workplaces,” recommended Sue.  “It’s not enough to simply introduce a theme of creativity, leaders need to help people understand how their brain works if they want to improve innovation.”

For example, neuroscientists are finding that the activity in your brain when you are being creative is far more complex than the previous distinction between your right brain (creative, emotional and poetic) versus your left-brain (analytical, practical and organized).  Rather it seems that when you’re being creative your brains light up in many different areas, tapping into both your emotional and cognitive thought processes.   

A recent large review, provides a "first approximation" regarding how creative cognition might map on to the human brain. The researchers suggested that when you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic.

So how can you apply these practices and improve your creativity at work?  Sue recommends these three approaches:

  • Get curious – A big part of creativity is curiosity as this fires up your executive attention network and imagination networks, helping you to focus your attention as you explore dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences, thoughts about the future and exploration of alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present.  Use your curiosity to explore why things happen, how they work, what impact they have.  Ask questions without fearing you’ll appear stupid.  Seek out new sources of knowledge be they books, conferences, podcasts, TED Talks or classes.  Follow your interests and really explore their possibilities. 

For example, at The Hope Lab where video games are designed to promote healthy habits and even fight cancer, they intentionally try to create a culture of curiosity to stimulate innovation.  Employees use internal tools designed to prompt conversation and reflection, meetings are positioned as problem-solving opportunities and employees are given financial and moral support to pursue any kind of learning, from cooking class to a photography course.

  • Be willing to fail - behind every creative genius are stories of failure. Likewise if organizations wish to cultivate creativity they need to establish cultures where the risk of failure is accepted as part of the deal.  The truth is if you’re not failing some of the time, you’re not stretching far enough outside of your comfort zone to keep learning and growing.

One of Sue’s clients recently added the ‘The Best Idea That Didn’t Succeed Award’ to their suite of annual awards to give employees the permission to fail and boost innovation.  Owning, discussing and sharing our learnings from failure gives us the courage to be creative, teaches us the value of failing quickly, and normalizes failure as part of the innovation journey.

  • Cultivate positive emotions – positive emotions - such as gratitude, compassion, joy, and inspiration – have been found to help you broaden your thinking, and build your capacity to see more possibilities and think more creatively.  You can cultivate more positive emotions at work by fostering high-quality connections with others, gratitude, kindness, hope, and finding ways to leverage off your strengths – those things you are good at and enjoy doing.

For example, one of the organizations Sue is currently working with introduced a one-hour lunch and learn session around positive psychology.  Over the last four years, this has further developed into leadership programs, an employee wellbeing program, and has led to innovative strengths-based processes throughout the organization. 

What might you and your organization achieve by unleashing more creativity? 

This interview was produced in partnership with the European Positive Psychology Conference and The Positive Psychology Program.

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