Being creative doesn’t just mean being able to paint, draw or sing. Creativity is about finding new, potentially unorthodox solutions to problems, or considering issues from different perspectives to find answers. The ability to be creative exists in everyone, across job sectors and job functions - and it’s an important asset to all businesses.
According to the World Economic Forum, creativity is the third most important skill for employees, behind problem-solving and critical thinking. “With the avalanche of new products, new technologies, and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes,” the report said.
The pandemic has been a good example of the need for creativity in business. Amid the chaos of Covid-19, restaurants turned into takeaways, shops turned into online marketplaces and business models were changed overnight. Office-turned-home workers have had to be creative with their space, while becoming accustomed to digital communication.
However, being creative doesn’t come naturally to everyone, especially at work. When we spend our days working to tight deadlines, dealing with heavy workloads and responding to a constant barrage of emails, not much space is left for creative thinking. And research shows it takes courage to be creative at work - and it can take guts to stand up to a manager with a new idea.
Last year, researchers at the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence found we are more likely to have courage to share original, creative ideas when we receive implicit and explicit messages of support at school and work. The study identified several factors when it came to feeling comfortable with creativity, including concerns about how one’s ideas would be received - and whether there would be any negative social consequences.
It was also harder to be creative because there is often a preference to stick with tried and tested ideas, the research found. Creativity can require risk-taking, but at school and in work, it’s often better to be safe.
In a study of professional adults across industries in the US, the researchers also investigated whether people’s work environments could predict employees’ creativity and innovation in their jobs.
Almost half of those surveyed said they never, rarely, or only sometimes have a voice in their jobs. This was found to predict how often workers show creativity. When their organisation valued and encouraged creative thinking, people were more likely to feel brave enough to show innovation.
Encouraging creativity is something that benefits employers, with research suggesting companies that foster creativity are 3.5 times more likely to outperform their peers in revenue growth. Creativity is also CEOs’ most valuable leadership quality for success, according to a separate survey. Research by LinkedIn also found that it’s a top skill among employees, particularly in an age of growing automation. So what can employers do to encourage it?
Sharing your thoughts about how to improve a business isn’t always easy, so making sure employees’ ideas are welcomed and accepted without judgement is key. This might mean holding brainstorming sessions in small teams so people don’t feel embarrassed to speak up, or using a platform to share ideas anonymously.
Give people a break from technology
Being creative requires being able to think more deeply, which is difficult to do when you’re always being distracted by emails, Slack messages and other notifications. Time off from technology allows people to tap into their creativity because they are free to do more thoughtful work. It doesn’t have to mean ignoring important messages, but instead setting statuses to “away” for a couple of hours during the day.
Make sure employees are psychologically safe
If you’ve ever thought of a great idea in a meeting but kept quiet, you’re not alone. Research suggests that, when faced with the choice of whether or not to raise an issue, employees often choose to remain silent. Creating a psychological safety net can help people feel comfortable raising their voices and coming up with innovative ideas.
First described in a 1999 academic paper by Amy Edmonson, an organisational behavioural scientist from Harvard University, psychological safety describes a climate in which speaking up is enabled and expected. She defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Encouraging people to talk, making sure all ideas are listened to and giving constructive feedback are all examples of psychological safety. Embracing creativity means allowing people to be vulnerable and human.
Watch: How to answer difficult interview questions