Creativity is more than just a buzzword and whether your company has five employees or 500, encouraging and fostering it should be a priority for every business owner.
According to an IBM survey of CEOs around the world, creativity is the most crucial factor for continued success, ahead of traits like vision, integrity, and managerial discipline.
“CEOs are confronted with massive shifts—new government regulations, changes in global economic power centers, accelerated industry transformation, growing volumes of data, rapidly evolving customer preferences—that, according to the study, can be overcome by instilling ‘creativity’ throughout an organization,” says the IBM report.
Sparking your own sense of creativity is one thing, but how can you do the same for your team? Creativity is about embracing ambiguity, imagination, and transformation—and it can be difficult to encourage such intangible and elusive concepts. Creativity and management sometimes even feel like opposing ideals.
Here are 12 steps any good leader can take to inspire a team to think more creatively in the workplace:
Exude confidence in your own creativity
Inspiring creativity all starts with you as a leader. A study published in Psychological Science shows that confident leaders “were better at encouraging creativity in their followers, particularly when teams worked closely together. Confident leaders were more likely to encourage other people’s creative ideas by establishing a culture of receptive to creativity, listening to new ideas, trying new things, and offering praise.”
The truth is, humans tend to have a bias against creative ideas, despite being outwardly supportive of the concept. Embrace uncertainty with confidence and you’ll hurdle this psychological barrier.
Reward those who try
Rewarding employees for trying to be creative is how you encourage them to keep it up. Even attempts at unique, outside-the-box thinking that don’t end up succeeding should be rewarded, even in small ways. Global corporation Tata, for example, gives out “Dare to Try” prizes for “novel, daring and seriously attempted ideas that did not achieve the desired results.”
Set brainstorming limitations
Brainstorming is a popular method of sparking creativity. But, paradoxically, setting some constraints on how people brainstorm may actually help foster ideas, as it forces people to think laterally: problem-solving through indirect and nontraditional approaches. If you’re coming up with ideas for a new product, for example, give constraints like “smaller than a smartphone,” or “only using natural ingredients.”
Extend a challenge
Similar to setting limitations, extending a challenge to your team will give them a goal to work towards. This is more effective than simply saying “Be more creative while working!” This challenge can be an unattainable goal or something completely outside their wheelhouse—but that discomfort and uncertainty might drive them to accomplish something they never would have thought possible.
Play “Yes, and…”
Anyone who has taken an improv class knows about saying “Yes, and…” in response to any idea put forward, rather than “No, but… ” This approach in brainstorming sessions helps employees build off one another’s ideas and lines of thinking, rather than shoot each other down. Removing the fear of being told no will help people share their ideas more freely.
Give employees time to recharge
Not surprisingly, stress kills creativity. We’ve seen decades of research that demonstrate how stress leads to less creative results as it causes us to lean make the safe and dependable decision over new, uncharted territories.
Since an excessively high workload is one of the main contributors to feeling stressed at work, it’s important to give people space and time to recharge, whether that’s by guaranteeing them a lunch hour away from their desk or granting them flexible use of paid time off. Extending them affordable health benefits that they can use when they’re sick or stressed is a crucial aspect of this as well.
Encourage different work practices
Doing the same job, the same way, day after day can stifle creative thinking. Help employees break out of their routine by encouraging them to work differently on occasion.
This can take a few different forms. Encourage employees in different locations or different parts of the office to work together. Cross-fertilize your teams and assemble groups of employees who don’t often work together, asking them to work on a project while giving everyone equal input. You can even try out short-term job swaps, so employees can see other people’s roles in a new light and identify potential problems or solutions that others couldn’t.
Include employees at every level
A good leader knows that they don’t have all the answers. That’s why it’s important to get the input of employees at every level, from managers on down to entry-level employees. In group activities, make sure everyone is heard. When creating challenges or organizing brainstorming sessions, invite all team members to take part—you never know where the next great idea will come from.
Eliminate the overly dominate
Fostering a creative office environment means building a team that is open to creativity. That doesn’t mean just hiring “creative” types, but a team that is diverse in background, skillset, and worldview.
One character type that doesn’t fit in this context is someone who dominates the team dynamic every time, either through overconfidence or outright disrespect. Ideally, you can help coach this person to be less overbearing in a team and individual setting, but you should also focus on hiring the right people from the start.
Looking over someone’s shoulder every few minutes is a surefire way to make them self-conscious and otherwise unwilling to take risks for fear of failure. Empower your team to work at a high level with autonomy—with the occasional review or follow-up to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Expose the office to diverse perspectives
As mentioned above, it’s important to create a heterogeneous team that brings different perspectives to the table. There is more than one way to expose your team to diverse views, however: Try bringing in thought leaders, business owners, and other outside speakers to give lectures and workshops. LifeLabs Learning is a great example of an organization that can come in and teach your employees new skills and ways of thinking, which can lead to a more informed, and engaged, workforce.
Be gentle and supportive
Being creative in an office setting is difficult, and may not come naturally to people. It’s also scary to be asked to embrace ambiguity and failure when your job is dependent on certainty and results. As a leader, be supportive of people’s efforts to think and act creatively, and don’t chop them down when their idea doesn’t work.
The most supportive thing of all, of course, is to actually move on some of the creative ideas your team comes up with. Doing so will speak louder about your support of creativity than any memos could.
There is no magic formula for inspiring creativity, especially from above. Certain tactics might work right away for the team you’ve assembled, while others fall flat. But creativity is an ethos, and following the above tips can help you instill that atmosphere into your team now and as you continue to build.
Jared Hecht is the co-founder and CEO of Fundera, an online marketplace for small business financial solutions. Prior to Fundera, Hecht co-founded group messaging app, GroupMe.