Creativity Killers - Watch Out!

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2004

During a recent dinner meeting with a group of bio-tech CEOs where I was the invited speaker, one of them complained about people who she characterized as, "Yes, but-ers." Her complaint must have resonated because the other CEOs clamored to chime in with their examples of what I will call, "creativity killers."

The example she gave was an obvious one. However, there are more subtle and menacing examples of how any of us can inadvertently do things that can suck the life right out of a room of highly creative people in a flash. In this briefing I'll talk about some of those creativity killers and how you can spot them in yourself and others and keep from inadvertently unleashing this scourge on yourself and your people.

Some of the most potent creativity killers I've come across in my work with companies include:

Executive over-exuberance - not knowing when to shut up: This is a more subtle but nevertheless, very effective creativity killer. Executives who chime in too soon with their ideas and solutions can inadvertently stop further discussions. "Here is the answer...case closed," is the unstated message. The trouble is that it may be "the answer" but if offered too frequently, other people will feel disempowered and simply wait for your correct answer. Unfortunately, no one person can be correct or brilliant all the time. You need to foster and tap into other people"s brilliance by encouraging input and discussion while being patient.

Excessive competitiveness or a "me first" mentality: Organizations where executives look out primarily for their own turf tend to squelch the essential cross-fertilization of ideas found in highly creative environments. "Why should I tell you about my new idea if you are only going to put me down" (so that you stay on top) is a common refrain. Or, "If you're going to take credit for my ideas...I"m going to keep them for myself," even if it means stifling our/my creativity.

Over surveillance: Executives who hover about and look over your shoulder squelch the creative urge. The implication is that the executive doesn't trust people and that deflates creativity.

Too judgmental: Executives who critique too soon and too harshly scare people into silence. Evaluation of ideas too soon can lead to a preoccupation with being judged. Not all ideas are good but jumping in too quickly to criticize them will stop the flow. Quantity of ideas is the hallmark of creativity. Very creative people produce lots of ideas...many end up on the cutting room floor before that one good one surfaces. The challenge is to refine and hone ideas at the proper time...not too soon.

Micromanaging every step of the way: Similar to surveillance, micromanaging fosters an oppressive sense of constriction, which discourages originality. I've known too many executives jump ship over being micromanaged. Smart, creative people need to be trusted.

Relentless deadlines: Teresa Amabile, of the Harvard Business School, found in her research that a too-intense schedule that creates panic can stifle creativity. "While some pressure can be motivating, and deadlines and goals can focus attention, they can kill fertile 'off time' where fresh ideas flourish."

Avoidance of change: Some people simply are risk adverse and new ideas that are edgy are perceived as bad ideas. The challenge is to listen, consider, evaluate and then, if the idea seems good, ask: Am I afraid of trying out this new idea? Does it rock my boat too much? Am I resistant because I'm afraid or is it really a bad idea?

Lastly, there is the "Yes, but:" People who say, "Yes, but" or some variation on the theme, clearly don't agree with you and aren't really listening. Some folks are chronic "yes but-ers" and when they enter a conversation you can feel people get depressed. Unfortunately, "yes but-ers" rarely receive useful feedback about their condition because they say...yes, but! So, people avoid them or tune them out. If you have a yes but-er in your group you have to confront them quickly to stop the behavior or your energy can quickly become depleted.

If you know of other creativity killers and have successfully thwarted their attack...send them my way and I'll post a follow up in next month's executive briefing.