Sourpus, Cheerleaders, and the Magic Formula for Boosting Creativity

Thanks to some fascinating research, I can finally decipher one of my worst grammar experiences and one of my best managerial ones. And more importantly, the research provides a powerful leadership formula for nurturing creative, adaptive team members.

Mrs. Creativity-Crusher (not her real name, believe it or not) was a grumpy art teacher who once examined my clumsy collage-in-progress and accosted me for “getting some of that junk out of there.” But what was “junk” and what was good? I had no idea and she preferred to watch rather than help. So I checked out, convinced I had no artistic talent. Do you feel sorry for me yet?

Fast forward a couple of decades, to when I left my Tokyo Office colleagues gasped by fast-tracking a promotion in job responsibilities for Ms. Opportunity-Optimizer (not her real name either). I encouraged her in her new role and then I walked away. Which was about all she needed to shine; and she continued to rise in the company for years afterwards.

Although circumstances and continents and decades apart, these two experiences actually show common themes. Or so I’ve concluded after reading Judy Wearing’s fascinating exploration of how creativity and self-esteem flourish (or are crushed) among young adult learners.

Wearing, the lead learning architect at Dignity Health Global Education, investigated the impact on young adults of taking on a creative challenge at the behest of a teacher during middle school. Wearing’s findings can be simplified into a managerial (or learning) mantra: meaningful challenge … freedom … leader/teacher belief.

That is: Give the student (or team member) a meaningful challenge, and give them the freedom to attack that challenge without a micro-leadership leash, and support them along the way. (“Cheer them along” is my antiseptic phrase; Wearing’s preferred phrasing would be: “cheerleed the hell out of them”).

Even more fascinating is Wearing’s finding that completing even one challenging creative project can produce an outsized gain in a young person’s self-concept, a gain that appears to last. As Wearing put it, “It went from ‘I can write a song,’ to ‘I can be creative,’ to ‘I’m creative.’ And then they acted on it in the years that followed. The leap from ‘I can’ to ‘I am’ was universal.”

For a powerful plan for management effectiveness. But what Wearing discovered, and what we usually don’t appreciate, is that “meaningful challenge-freedom-support” is a three-part formula, not a menu. Some of us may instinctively give talented subordinates enough autonomy to perform; others of us may understand that we get better results when team members feel supported. But we need to focus on all three dimensions, not just on the one or two behaviors that come naturally to us.

For example, it gave the art teacher, Ms. Creativity Crusher, me much freedom; but without her support, my confidence plummeted. And conversely, when decades later I gave Ms. Opportunity Optimizer a great challenge, freedom and support, I maximized her chances of success.

Admittedly, I followed the magic formula of dumb luck rather than conscious management strategy. That’s exactly the point: We leaders must become much more intentional, adopt holistic, targeted strategies if we hope to nurture adaptive team members. And developing such talents is certainly important in today’s volatile, change-filled environments.

So why do we still so often resort to leadership styles that produce the opposite result, especially with junior and new hires? We hamper them with boring, routine scut work, while exposing them to our micro-managerial gaze.

As we see it, they “prove themselves”. But the way they see it, we’re dealing the same blow that the Creativity Crusher gave me: “Gee, this manager apparently doesn’t think I’m capable of contributing meaningfully. Maybe I’m not.” Because not only did Wearing discover that successfully completing a meaningful challenge could build confidence, she also found that when leaders don’t offer meaningful challenges, confidence can plummet.

Just when the organization needs adaptive, innovative team members, it thus produces unreliable drones. They become the “quiet quitters,” or they gather the courage to quit for real, hoping to find more challenging pastures elsewhere.

Wearing’s research complements other paradigmatic efforts to explain how creativity and productivity flourish, such as Albert Bandura’s (d. 2021) findings on “Self-Efficacy” (To put it simply: We perform more effectively when we feel some control over our work environment).

And her research is reminiscent of the wise words attributed to psychologist and management theorist Frederick Herzberg (d. 2000): “If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” Or, as Wearing might put it: Give them a good challenge … and the freedom to execute it … and cheer them to hell.

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