Fostering Creativity in the Workplace

I read an article recently (ABC News) that reported on what the magical number of emails a person can “stand” a day before they feel overloaded: 50 emails! That is not the number they receive, only the number before they feel stressed. With an estimated 1.6 billion people globally using email, I have to ask, “What effect do all these emails have on productivity and performance, or more critical to a company’s bottom line, on creativity?”   While we certainly could not conduct business without email today, the promise of increased efficiency and creativity is in many cases unrealized.  While most emails seem distracting to organizational objectives, the opportunity to increase creativity is large. Let me first clear up the myth that creativity is something that some people have and others do not; while most people think that some people are more genetically predisposed to creativity than others are, creativity is behavior, and as such it can be increased or decreased like any other behavior.  Email has tremendous potential to increase creativity but unless managers understand the science of behavior it can be more of a punisher than a reinforcer of creativity. Here are a few tips for how you might approach creativity in an email dominated world.

  • Reinforce all ideas: Any behavior that indicates a person is thinking about how to do a job better or how to find a new or improved product or service should be reinforced. An idea that  seems trivial or outrageous may be the father to one that generates a more efficient process, product or service.  Email gives a manager many opportunities to increase behavior aimed at leading an organization and “thinking outside the box.”
  • Remove obstacles that are punishing or penalizing creativity: It has been proven that the shorter the time between the submission of an idea and the acknowledgement of the submission, the more willing employees will be to offer up suggestions or share their ideas. By responding quickly, you reinforce their efforts to think creatively.  Equally important is that the process for doing so not be cumbersome. The easier you make it to get an idea into the system, the higher the number of suggestion you will get.  Email automatically documents suggestions for improvement and speeds action; both increase participation in idea generation.
  • Form unlikely teams: Step away from traditional work groups and engage your employees to work with employees outside the usual distribution lists. By forming diverse teams, you will increase the opportunities and discover new ways to solve problems.  Changing teams with email is as simple as changing the distribution list.
  • Train performers to fluency: When employees are fluent (automatic, non-hesitant responding) in their jobs, they have more cognitive time to consider alternative ways to accomplish job objectives.  Most organizations train employees in such a way that fluency is not attained until they have been on the job for months or even years. Computer technology can produce fluency in days or weeks.
  • Look to unlikely people:  Robert Epstein, a prominent creativity researcher, says, “All behavior is equally creative.”  I agree.  We never do the same thing in exactly the same way twice – creating potentially creative variance.   This means that everyone has tremendous creative potential when properly managed.  When organizations think that only certain people have creative ability, most of the potential for change is lost and involvement is diminished considerably.    

In the final analysis, when creativity is understood as behavior that all can exhibit, it can be increased many times its current rates.  Modern technology, including email, increases that ability.

Additional Resources: Bringing Out the Best in People, Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D. "Generativity Theory", Robert Epstein, Ph.D., (chapter from) Encyclopedia of Creativity, Pritzker & Runco, Academic Press (1999).

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.