Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now.
Innovation drives growth. With the pressure of global competition and ever-changing technologies, business leaders know they must “innovate or die.” But to innovate, you first need creativity. That means for an organization to thrive you need leaders who excel at fostering creative work.
It’s not just fields like film and advertising that revolve around creativity, the development of something new, original and useful. In any business creative ideas and products contribute value. But a creative idea may never come to fruition; you need to go the next step—innovation—when you successfully implement those new ideas. You can have creativity without innovation, but not innovation without creativity.
The old idea that it’s the “right-brain” that’s creative, neuroscientists now realize, is a bit of a myth. The creative state involves the whole-brain, left-right-top-bottom, particularly what’s called the “default network”—the circuitry that springs into action when we’re just relaxing. That’s why so many creative insights come to us in downtime: taking a shower, walking the dog, driving along. In this relaxed mode the brain accesses a large web of connections.
A particular EEG wave—a high gamma spike—occurs when far-flung neurons connect to form a new neural circuit, signaling that the brain has a new insight. This heightened activity focuses on the temporal area, near the right neocortex. This is the same brain area that interprets metaphor and gets jokes. It understands the language of the unconscious, the language of poems, of art, of myth.
What’s the best way to mobilize this brain ability? It’s essential that we first focus intently on a goal or problem—and then let go. Creativity flourishes when we allow plentiful time for self-reflection.
Then there’s the question of how a leader can foster such creative time-outs. Teresa Amabile, at Harvard Business School, has developed a theory of creativity over the course of her career. She’s identified three vital influences on individual creativity: talent in your field, self-discipline, and passion. And beyond the individual, social environment also effects creativity.
Leaders can have the greatest impact on employee creativity, Amabile finds, through motivating people and fostering the right work environment. People are most creative when they are motivated by passion and interest in their work. Leaders that promote “good work” and help their employees undertake projects they feel excited about enhance motivation. In her research, Amabile has also found that “small wins” lead to greater inner motivation and creativity. A person’s own sense of progress—not recognition or reward—is the number one motivator for creative output. By setting clear goals and deploying inspirational leadership—articulating a shared vision—leaders can help their employees want to make meaningful progress on their creative projects.
Beyond that, people need a “cocoon space,” a time on the job when they can focus without interruption on their challenge. Having sufficient time to try out possible solutions and process ideas on one’s own is far more conducive to creativity than endless tight deadlines.
In addition, it helps if a leader lets people know they can be autonomous in how they solve that challenge. In short, don’t micro-manage, but leave people free to find solutions their own way.
Then there’s the emotional climate a leader creates. Harshly criticizing new ideas can quickly stifle creativity. To prevent this, some teams implement a norm where the first response to a new idea must be positive. It’s too easy for a critic to kill a budding idea. Leaders who model giving new ideas space to flourish encourage their teams to successfully move from creativity to innovation. After all, without leaders who support creative ideas, even the most promising solutions can fail to materialize.
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