Fostering Creativity at Work: Do Your Managers Push or Crush Innovation?

Creativity is a business asset.

Spotting and seizing opportunities — and avoiding pitfalls — requires ingenuity and originality.

But very few companies treat creativity like a job expectation and incorporate it into their performance development system.

In fact, a recent Gallup study of more than 16,500 employees shows that the three foundational factors needed to foster creativity in the workplace are all too rare:

expectations to be creative at work
time to be creative
freedom to take the risks necessary to be creative
As a result, businesses are missing value that they should be capturing.

A better business tactic is for managers to make creativity an expectation of every job role and to help workers develop their innovation skills.

But how do you coach the imagination?

Or assess an activity’s worth if it has no immediate dollar value? Or put enough edges on the amorphous to make it measurable?

The first step, obviously, is to remove any barriers by giving workers the time, permission and freedom to be creative.

That feels like an explicit invitation to innovation.

Second, establish an employee experience that encourages workers to accept that invitation and put it to good use.

Our data show there’s a link between workplace engagement and creativity, and everyone recognizes the link between innovation and market share.

Gallup’s research-driven strategies can help companies design an employee experience that leverages those links — and gets the best ROI from the employee imagination.

Expectations to Be Creative at Work
Only 29% of workers strongly agree that they’re expected to be creative or think of new ways to do things at work.

While we’re all capable of finding new ways to help our company succeed, we may not put in much effort, or feel welcome to, unless creativity is expressly required.

And when workers have an idea for a better way to do their job or come up with market-moving products or services, they should be publicly recognized.

It’s flattering to be applauded for a good idea — and even if that idea won’t work, someone else’s iteration of it can lead to big things.

Consider Play-Doh, for instance. First manufactured by a soap company in the 1930s, Play-Doh was sold as a wallpaper cleaner until an employee’s sister-in-law had a more creative idea: Call it a toy and market it to kids. Hasbro acquired the brand in 1991, and now Play-Doh is one of its best-selling products.

Most ideas aren’t going to be the next Play-Doh, but managers should make it clear that observing, thinking, making connections — basic creativity — is part of every employee’s job role and will be a factor in their performance development.

Time to Be Creative

Executive leaders often schedule creativity into their calendar because building vision and strategy — a very creative endeavor — is part of their job.

But lower-level employees need to justify their time with discernable results. Which may be why 35% of workers say they’re only given time to be creative a few times a year, or less often.

Even when employees strongly agree that they’re expected to be creative, only 52% of them say they’re given time to do so every day.

People with “creative” jobs, such as artists and writers, often say that good time management promotes creativity.

Maybe discipline makes their creativity a more accessible resource or helps them organize their thoughts. Maybe putting edges on creative time simply reminds them to ideate — real-world work can seem more demanding than blue-sky thinking.

Whatever the psychological process, scheduling time for creativity ensures that it happens, shows that creativity is a cultural value to the organization and gives managers something tangible to measure.

That last part can be tricky. To assess the business value of creative time, managers may need to take a qualitative approach.

If you can’t measure the impact of creative time by revenue generation — and you really can’t, not until a new product is out — measure the intensity of team participation or the number of ideas that surface.

As Steve Jobs said, “You cannot mandate productivity, you must provide the tools to let people become their best.”

Freedom to Take the Risks Necessary to Be Creative
Being creative at work tends to be a risky endeavor.

What’s new and different often fails, and the unfamiliar can be viewed unfavorably.

People tend to be pretty risk averse at work if their career growth hinges on demonstrating a track record of success.

Thus, it’s no surprise that only 18% of employees strongly agree that they can take risks at work that could lead to important new products, services or solutions.

Clearly, quite a few companies are missing opportunities that their employees may already see.

The danger here is twofold. First, risk aversion can make a company less competitive in the market and slow to adapt to operation innovations that boost productivity, increase profit, aid retention and improve recruitment.

Second, companies that discourage risk can create a climate of insecurity for their workers.

If workers believe new ideas are unwelcome, or that well-intentioned failures will be punished, they’ll shut down. They’ll be less creative, of course, but they may also be less willing to help coworkers, offer advice or flag unsafe practices. Today, only one in five U.S. workers strongly agree that their opinions count at work — no wonder only half of workers who are expected to be creative say they’re allowed to take risks.

Of course, the opposite is equally true — leaders who encourage and support constructive risk-taking have cultures that feel safe and emotionally positive.

That may encourage managers to expect creativity (and get it) and allow workers the time they need to think big.

In such work cultures, risks may feel more like seizing opportunity and less like inviting failure … which is the path to revenue generation and customer engagement.

The Interplay of Expectations, Opportunity and Engagement

Organizations that foster a culture of creativity seem to generate an interesting self-perpetuating employee experience: By promoting creativity, they engage workers, and engaged workers are more creative.

To better understand this phenomenon — and how it relates to managing creative performance — we applied an advanced statistical method called structural equation modeling to our data.

The analysis revealed that when employees are given expectations and time to be creative, they are more confident in taking an innovative approach to important problems, products or services.

Further, the effectiveness of providing expectations and time is greatly influenced by employee engagement. That is, the more engaged employees are, the more likely they are to take advantage of expectations and opportunities to be creative.

So, designing a culture that simultaneously supports expectations to be creative at work, time to be creative and freedom to take the risks necessary to be creative shows employees that they can take the risks necessary to attempt valuable innovations.

Each of these catalysts adds a unique element that builds upon and complements the others, and the optimal climate for creativity results when all three are combined.

On average, fewer than two in 10 employees strongly agree they can take risks to be creative — but when all three fundamentals of creative performance are present, in addition to engagement, this ratio more than triples to nearly seven in 10 employees who feel empowered to innovate.

And those creative, engaged people feel like they’re doing their best work. People who work where creativity feels supported report higher levels of personal, team and organizational performance, and they are less likely to say they’re looking for another job.

Indeed, those who strongly agree that they can take creative risks at work are half as likely to be actively job-searching.

Meanwhile, in the general labor pool, 51% of U.S. workers are actively looking for another job … and most of them (91%) will find it at some other company.

Foster a Culture of Creativity and Innovation
Stifling creativity — or just failing to encourage it, for that matter — is dangerous in today’s competitive business climate that rewards agility and punishes hesitancy. And as creativity and engagement work in tandem, inhibiting one may throttle the other.

Leaders should worry about what kind of innovation culture their managers create.

The pressure for market share is relentless, and getting a slice of it requires brains, courage and innovation.

If businesses want the best new ideas, they must not only permit but also actively encourage creativity.

The employee experience should position innovation as part of performance. Managers need to develop the systems and supportive processes that help workers create and capitalize on their ideas.

A company that isn’t intentional and committed to this type of culture will ultimately inhibit growth — of its profits and of its people.

But a company that promotes a culture of creativity accesses the full capacity of its workers, from imagination to engagement. Those qualities have always been valuable, but in today’s business environment, they’re critical.

This article is based on data from Gallup’s 2017 American Workplace Survey, a Gallup Panel study conducted via the web April 19-May 7, 2017, with 16,571 full- and part-time employees. The Gallup Panel is a probability-based longitudinal panel of U.S. adults; the sample is weighted to be demographically representative of the U.S. adult population based on the Current Population Survey.


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