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5 Reasons Creativity Gets Crushed at Work

Our creative spirit in the workplace can be affected by constant criticism.

Key points

  • New ideas in the workplace are frequently "shot down" by negative criticism.
  • There are five major reasons why colleagues reject new ideas.
  • Many people protect their "corporate standing" by rejecting new ideas.

Let’s say you’ve got a great new idea, an idea that will transform your department into a dynamic new entity within the company. Profits will soar, people will be happy, and, of course, you’ll get a substantial raise. You bring this new idea to the weekly department meeting and announce it to all your colleagues. There is stunned silence. But, finally, from somewhere in the back of the room, somebody raises their voice and says something like, “That’s got to be the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard! It’ll never work!”

You’ve effectively been shot down. You’ve been hit between the eyes with a verbal bullet and your idea, for all intents and purposes, has been killed on the spot. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that many of us are assailed by these verbal put-downs regularly. That negativity frequently infests our workplaces where criticism is not only condoned but is often the modus operandi of an organization.

Some people are masters at tamping down new ideas. These are the naysayers—those 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. Cro-Magnons may have been reluctant to hike over a mountain ridge because they didn’t know what (or who) they’d meet on the other side. They had established a comfort zone on one side of the mountain and venturing into a new environment probably meant a new set of survival skills. “Let’s play it safe,” “Let’s not take that chance,” they may have said. “No” is safe, and “yes” holds the possibility of unknown dangers, new fears, and lots of uncertainties.

Modern humans often have the same set of apprehensions—living their lives in fear. “Stay with what’s comfortable; what’s known,” they say to themselves (and others). Consequently, they want to wrap others into that comfort zone—imposing their will on colleagues who may wish to venture outside that zone and see what’s “on the other side of the mountain.”

Christina Morillo/Pexels
Source: Christina Morillo/Pexels

Why Ideas Are Crushed

Why do some people feel compelled to say “no” to every new idea? Let’s take a look at a few reasons.

First, it’s a control issue. For example, when you tell someone her idea is no good, you exert a measure of control over her. Those we refer to as “control freaks” are often the ones who want to trample our energy and enthusiasm. It wasn’t their idea, so it can be controlled by saying it was a bad idea. They maintain their control by rejecting our ideas.

Second, there is a region of the human brain known as the amygdala, which serves as an automatic alarm system whenever there is danger (or the possibility of danger). Many psychologists believe this is the brain’s default position—that is, if something new and unusual appears in front of us, we have a natural tendency to picture it as harmful or dangerous. As a result, we will either protect ourselves or flee from the potential danger. In evolutionary terms, this is how prehistoric humans survived a harsh and often unpredictable environment. In modern terms, this means that new ideas are often viewed as dangerous ideas. And, if an idea is dangerous, then it must be squelched.

Third, some people are more comfortable being pessimistic. They see the glass as half-empty, they view the world as a negative environment, they always see the “bad” in a situation, and they always want others to know of their dissatisfaction with the way things are. When someone shares a positive idea, they seek to counter it with a negative reaction. These folks are reactionaries rather than visionaries. They are most comfortable in maintaining the edges of “the box.” As you might imagine, these are individuals who frequently solicit collegial approval. Thus, if someone doesn’t tell them they’re doing a good job (regularly), they certainly aren’t going to celebrate the ideas of others.

Fourth, some people are locked into a “fixed mindset.” They are incapable of embracing new ideas just as they are incapable of embracing change. They resist change in themselves, just as much as they resist change in others or in an organization. For them, change is difficult to fathom—it’s an intimidating proposition. It’s a journey into new territory and for some, that’s both frightening and worrisome. They are content right where they are, so why do things differently? Why venture into the unknown when the “known” is very comfortable just as it is?

Fifth, and perhaps most important, naysayers get attention when they say something that goes against the grain. They are recognized (often for the wrong reasons) for a gibe, a put-down, a taunt, a sneer, or an insult. The spotlight is (temporarily) on them. They are the center of attention. Moreover, they get a reaction—sometimes a negative reaction—but for a moment, all eyes are on them. They’ve inserted their thoughts and (re)claimed their space.

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.”

Are your new ideas crushed by colleagues?

References

Fredericks, Anthony DE. From Fizzle to Sizzle: The hidden forces crushing your creativity and how you can overcome them (Indianapolis, IN: Blue River Press, 2022).

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

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