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Creativity Shrinks? Like a Frightened Turtle.

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

“The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.” ~ Elder Uchtdorf

I am a firm believer that creativity is our natural default state.  And, although a bit of cliche, I think it’s also accurate to say it tends to get beaten out of most of us by the time we arrive in the business world.  Even though executives proclaim a desire for more creative and innovative thinking from their employees, it seems that order, logic and analytical thinking still reign supreme.

It’s somewhat ironic that as the pace and complexity of business have increased significantly, many executives are left scratching their heads wondering why it is so difficult to engage the creativity of their staff.  This paradox has led to a myriad of posts and articles on the subject.  Just Google, “How to Foster Creativity in the Workplace” and you’ll see what I mean.

Perhaps we’re all going about this the wrong way.

Creativity is like a turtle — when fear or threats exist, it has a tendency to seek shelter under its shell.  Instead of trying to coax it out into the light, a better approach is to focus on identifying and unlearning the behaviors that ‘threaten’ it in the first place.

What causes it to run for cover?  Lots of things, for creativity can be fickle.  As you reflect upon potential causes in your own organization, here are a few big themes that I have witnessed throughout my career.

Presence of Fear:  It’s hard to increase creative engagement when employees hesitate to share bold, paradigm-shattering ideas for fear of career retribution or even humiliation in front of their peers.  That might sound melodramatic, but it takes guts to take center stage and challenge the status quo or shoot for the moon.  Get used to receiving all types of ideas and make it a practice to give constructive feedback so that idea sharers walk away feeling fulfilled for having interacted.

Poor Listening & Negative Non-Verbals:  Similarly, leaders who sit in idea receivership must be careful of jumping to conclusions, especially when an idea doesn’t jive with their cognitive map.  Quick judgements usually come at the expense of listening.  Ideas are rarely born fully formed and often need the benefit of patience and collaboration to transform into something great.  Those presenting will be hyper-aware of verbal and non-verbal communication.  They’ll know when you’ve stopped listening.  They’lll be crushed if they catch you rolling your eyes.  Remember this:  the nicest thing one can do for someone presenting an idea is to be fully present.

Addiction to Logic:  Companies that value logic and analytics quickly switch from creativity mode to pragmatic mode.  Is it feasible?  Can we manufacture within our cost parameters?  While important questions, there is a time and place for them — and it’s rarely at an idea’s birth.  Radical or disruptive innovation concepts are difficult to judge and quantify early on.  If you bombard such ideas too early with logic, you’re likely to crush them under the weight of uncertainty.  Do this frequently and employees won’t bother bringing anymore ideas to the table.

Lack of Creative Constraints:  It’s hard for employees to focus and channel their creative energy into something when everything is a possibility.  Whether it’s a company vision, innovation strategy or a specific problem to solve, employees are more likely to engage when you’ve provoked them with a specific challenge.

Over-Worked & Under-Staffed:  Do your employees have the time to think creatively and search for inspiration?  Ideas won’t organically appear from staring at computer screens while chipping away at email.  Carving out time for individuals and teams to explore their curiosities is essential to any creative culture.  In addition, the pace at which we work is not always conducive to creativity.  A little break and some mindfulness will do wonders for much more than just fresh thinking.  This is a challenging area for it involves cultural change.  That means senior executives will need to lead the way by demonstrating positive behaviors and encouraging others to follow suit.

Lack of Recognition:  People want to help in general and will be willing to participate in problem solving if they feel they are contributing to a just cause.  What do most want in return for their effort?  A little recognition and praise.  Many organizations overcomplicate recognition in my opinion.  Rather than implementing formal programs, just get out of your chair and go thank someone for a job well done.  You’ll make their month.

The barriers and obstacles to creativity will vary company to company, culture to culture — even person to person.  I encourage you to make a list of the behaviors and cultural norms that interfere with it in your organization.  Start a conversation with colleagues; get aligned and commit to making changes.  Feel free to share your thoughts below!

Remember, creativity is our natural default state.  It is regenerative and infinitely abundant.  Once impediments are removed, it has an extraordinary ability to magically reappear — you’ll see.

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