Creative thinking needs to be rewarded

Dear Joan:
I most heartily agree with your comments in your recent column on non-conformity in the workplace. But yet, I see every week instances of the "non-conformist" being punished by businesses. The people who work for a business know whether they are allowed to be innovative, inventive, and/or creative. They have learned that actions count, not what the boss says. Most do what they have to, in order to survive.

I tend to have little sympathy for the corporate officer who laments that his people will not think for themselves. When was the last time that an employee who did so was rewarded?

I teach creative thinking. Creativity has been schooled out of most of the students. They are afraid to take chances. They have been trained to memorize facts, and to perform tasks, but not to think for themselves. The older students with working experience very rarely say that they are encouraged or allowed to do a job better if it means doing it differently. They are encouraged to do the job faster, to work more hours (particularly without pay), and to never question the boss.

So long as the view remains that managers tell the workers what, how and when to do things the employees will do only what they're told, when and how they are told. Their jobs depend on that.

So while I agree with everything you said, I also see that if employees in most companies did those things you advocate, they would risk involuntary career change.

Thank you for reminding all of us that this is a two-way street. Employees won't start thinking creatively until they can see evidence that the coast is clear and the company actually wants that kind of behavior.

Smart employees watch what the boss does not what the boss says. After that column was published, I received a lot of mail from CEOs and managers, who said they circulated copies of the column to their employees. These managers are trying to break the decades-old tradition of "the boss is always right." Posting a column on the bulletin board is a good start but it will soon become a target for darts unless it is backed up with some action.

Leaders who truly want to encourage employees to start thinking creatively about business problems and how to solve them, must reward that behavior every time they see it. If they ignore it or only take notice when one of those wacky ideas actually works, they will extinguish creative ideas.

Even though a CEO is eager to unleash the creativity of the employees, there are many subtle barriers that prevent new ideas from flourishing. Most of the resistance comes from middle managers who think they have the most to "lose."

Some managers resist change because they don't want to admit their systems or products are inferior to new ones. They think new ideas will just make more work for them, or they want to hang back and see if powerful executives accept it before agreeing to support it.
Traditionally, managers have been rewarded for keeping ripples from becoming waves that rock the boat, not for splashing others with new ideas. But managers who want their companies to succeed will begin to do some of the following:

·        Encourage "blue sky" thinking. Kick back and let your employees brainstorm ideas for solving problems. Forbid any evaluation during brainstorming, no matter how crazy the ideas get. Some of the best solutions develop from the goofiest ideas.

Insist that employees spend time finding better ways to do routine tasks. Encourage "Fix it even if it ain't broke" thinking.

·        Create interdepartmental teams to work on issues that cross department lines. Help them navigate the political system so their proposals get implemented.

·        Praise and promote people who think of new ideas and solutions to problems, even if their ideas fail. Others will soon see that you really do want them to think for themselves.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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