3 Ways Leaders Accidentally Undermine Their Teams’ Creativity

BY David Burkus – HBR.org

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about where creativity comes from and how to nurture and grow it in a team. As a result, even well-meaning leaders can end up killing the creativity of a team when they need it most.

If your team is in the midst of solving a problem or generating a new product or project idea, you might be killing their creativity without even trying. Here are three of the most common things managers do that have deleterious effects:

1. Spending too much time on brainstorming. There’s an ever-growing body of literature on the benefits and drawbacks of brainstorming, and experts on both sides arguing that it does or doesn’t work. Most of these arguments miss the true point: brainstorming as commonly practiced represents just one step in the large creative process, a step often referred to as divergent thinking. Researchers have developed a variety of different models of creativity, from the Osborn-Parnes creative problem-solving method to design thinking. What all of these methods share are some common stages, of which brainstorming is only one. Before divergent thinking can have any benefit, your team needs to have thoroughly researched the problem and be sure that their brainstorming answers the right question. Afterward, divergent thinking should be followed up with convergent thinking, where ideas are combined and sorted out to find the few answers that might be the best fit so that they can be prototyped, tested, and refined. But if your entire creative method is to get your team into a room and fill up a whiteboard, you are missing out.

2. Fostering too much cohesion. When you’re leading a team, team building is a high priority. The long-standing Tuckman model of group development emphasizes that new teams go through three phases – forming, storming, and norming. It’s easy to look at models like that and think that cohesion and friendliness should be the ultimate goal. But surprisingly, when it comes to creativity, the best teams fight a little (or even a lot). Structured, task-oriented conflict can be a signal that new ideas are being submitted to the group and tested. If you team always agrees, that might suggest that people are self-censoring their ideas, or worse, not generating any new ideas at all. Research suggests that teams that forgo traditional brainstorming rules and debate over ideas as they’re presented end up with more and better ideas. As a leader, it may seem like your job is to break up and fights, but don’t be afraid to act as a referee instead — allowing the fight over ideas to unfold, but making sure it stays fair and doesn’t get personal.

3. Judging ideas before they’ve been tested. In most organizations, once an individual or team has settled on their new idea for a product or project, they prepare to pitch it to whomever they need approval from. Whether the idea only needs your approval as the team leader, or whether it needs to be pitched through the entire hierarchy to win a green light, how new ideas are treated can dramatically and negatively affect creativity. To begin, research shows that we aren’t really that great at judging new ideas. We tend to favor ideas that reinforce the status quo and managers often tend to reject the ideas customers say they want. Compounding the issue is that, once an individual or team presents the idea and is met with rejection, the likelihood of them continuing to “think outside the box” is diminished. The result is the safe, stale ideas our biases favor—the very ones we don’t need. Instead of judging ideas first and then testing them in the marketplace, the best leaders find ways to test ideas first and defer judgment until they have early results. Whether it’s by giving everyone permission to prototype like Adobe’s Kickbox or by selling the product before it actually exists, focus on getting real results to demonstrate proof-of-concept before new ideas need to be pitched.

These ideas may seem counter-intuitive at first. Indeed, these accidental creativity killers actually seem positive on the surface. But there’s a growing body of research and case studies suggesting that underneath the surface, they’re causing more harm than good. So try the inverse and see what affect it has on your team’s creativity.


David Burkus is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. He is also founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University.