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What's Killing Your Creativity at Work?

Verbal put-downs can have a significant impact on your creative input.

Key points

  • A plethora of negative comments permeates many work environments.
  • The creative success of a company is determined by the ratio of negative to positive comments.
  • Creative put-downs are killers of both individual initiative as well as corporate long-range goals.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that we are assailed by verbal put-downs regularly. In fact, some people are masters at tamping down new ideas. These are folks who challenge every new idea as though it was a bad idea. They’ll say “no” at the drop of a hat!

In many cases, it’s the result of our natural resistance to change. Change is something new, and thus, change is scary. “Stay with what’s comfortable,” they say. Consequently, these naysayers want to wrap others into their comfort zone—imposing their will on colleagues who may wish to venture outside well-established intellectual boundaries.

Obviously, we don’t like to be told our ideas aren’t worth anything. Aside from the expected blow to our emotions, there’s evidence to suggest that we suffer physiologically as well. For example, when a co-worker says she doesn’t think your idea is a good one, there is a sudden release of stress-producing hormones throughout your body. Those chemicals have a decided impact on your brain, sufficient enough to result in an impairment of logic as well as your ability to communicate.

So, how common are those negative comments? According to one report, it appears as though negative reactions to new ideas are on the rise. The researchers interviewed over 3,000 U.S. business leaders about behaviors in the workplace. The results showed that 53 percent of the respondents have seen an increase in “criticism,” 48 percent have seen an increase in “dismissing others’ ideas,” and 36 percent have seen an increase in “hostility” or “disparaging others.”

An Important Ratio

But, there’s a growing body of research to suggest that it’s the proportion of negative criticism to positive encouragement that affects our creative output. In one study of business teams, it was discovered that the single most significant factor in the difference between successful and non-successful teams was the ratio of positive comments (“That sounds like a terrific idea!”) to negative statements (“You’re joking, right?”) that members of various teams shared with each other.

The researchers discovered that the average ratio for low-performing teams was about one positive comment for every three negative comments; for medium-performing teams, that ratio was about two positive comments for each negative comment; and for the highest-performing teams, the ratio of positive comments to negative comments was approximately six to one. The data does not suggest that negative comments should be eliminated from the workplace in order for creativity to flourish, but rather it establishes a working model (ratio) that nurtures and ensures increased levels of creative output.

Mohamed_Hassan/Pixabay
Source: Mohamed_Hassan/Pixabay

What Are the Implications?

The implications are twofold. First, the “weight” of corporate put-downs often becomes unbearable. Imagine yourself subjected to these negative comments over the entire length of your professional career. Being continuously bombarded by a plethora of “That’ll never work” and “That’s got to be the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!” can wear us down after a while. After months or years of hearing a constant onslaught of negative comments, we tend to lose our creative spirit.

Second, creativity thrives when it is promoted and supported in an environment that is significantly more positive than negative. In those workplaces where cynics predominate, creativity withers and dies. More importantly, people are effectively told not to venture creative solutions because they know those suggestions will be met with a bombardment of negative reviews and a dearth of supportive comments.

When the positive/negative ratio is out of whack, the opportunities for innovation are significantly reduced. Creativity becomes a footnote—rather than a mantra—for the organization. Suffice it to say, creativity put-downs are immediate killers of both individual initiatives as well as corporate long-range goals. They are also a precursor to an atmosphere that often puts the brakes on any innovative ideas long before they ever reach the conference table or board room.

How to Enhance Creativity

Two strategies can help prompt innovative ideas.

1. Celebrate people.

According to the world’s largest specialized staffing firm, one of the top three drivers for creative and marketing people is an overall feeling of appreciation for their work. This means that if business leaders want to create an environment where creativity is valued, they also need to create an environment in which success is lauded… not occasionally, but regularly. It’s a corporate culture that puts a premium on letting employees know how critical their contributions are in helping the organization reach its goals.

Creativity is promoted when employees have an opportunity, and a place, to “show off” completed projects (i.e., a bulletin board, company landing page, “Wall of Fame,” periodic newsletter, press releases). Corporate creativity is also promoted when employees are recognized for going above and beyond their job descriptions: retreats, premium parking spaces, announcements in the local newspaper, plaques in the company lunchroom, awards dinners. An overall feeling of appreciation for one’s work can significantly increase the creativity quotient of any organization.

2. Different folks, different strokes.

I’m stuck! I’m writing a book, and my mind shuts down. No, it’s not “writer’s block”; it’s just that ideas are not flowing as rapidly as I would like. I’m losing steam, and my mental energies are on “Pause.” I need a kick in the seat of my pants… mentally speaking.

So, I turn my manuscript over to an imaginary architect in Newcastle, England, an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, a violin player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, or an Olympic distance runner preparing to compete in the 10,000-meter run. How would they handle this concept? What would they say about this particular section of the book? What ideas could they offer that would help me break out of my funk?

By “asking” imaginary folks from different walks of life for their advice, I can assure myself of some new perspectives and new visions. What would a computer technician, stonemason, or pediatric oncologist say about the rhythm and flow of Chapter Nine in my latest book? I want to listen to the ideas of different folks. How would they approach this challenge?

References

Anthony D. Fredericks. From Fizzle to Sizzle: The Hidden Forces Crushing Your Creativity and How You Can Overcome Them. (Indianapolis: Blue River Press, forthcoming - January 2022).

(no author) “Global Fraud Survey 2016”, EY.com (no date) (https://www.ey.com/gl/en/services/assurance/fraud-investigation).

Phillip Sandahl. “Breaking the Code on High Performing Teams.” Team Coaching International (March 12, 2015), (https://teamcoachinginternational.com/breaking-the-code-ob-high-perform…).

Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman. The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers Into Great Leaders (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.

Robert Half. “7 Elements of a Highly Creative Work Environment.” Robert Half (May 14, 2019). https://www.roberthalf.com/blog/management-tips/7-elements-of-a-highly-…

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