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Why It Pays to Be Creative at Work


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by Sharon Hull in Creativity, Front Page
October 17, 2016

Are you a “creative” at work?

When I ask that question, do you immediately want to say, “I’m a scientist, not an artist” or “I do accounting, so numbers make sense to me, but poetry doesn’t” or “my job doesn’t allow creativity?” Or is your first thought, “I could never even draw a straight line, so I’m no Picasso?”  Only 25% of people believe they are living up to their creative potential, so you may not be alone.While being creative at work may seem counterintuitive, it is nevertheless a habit worth cultivating.

What, exactly, do we mean by “creativity?”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines creativity as “the ability to make new things or think of new ideas.”  Most of us do that every day in some fashion, though we may not realize it.  Librarians take in information from books and media, and may end up writing their own blog post about what they have learned, synthesizing it into a new idea for doing their work. Surgeons may invent an instrument to better serve their patients in the operating room.  Accountants may develop a new technique for linking budgets to actual goals of an organization.  And yes, artists, writers and musicians create new works of what we think of as “art.” However, don’t think that creativity is the province of “right-brained” folks only.  New brain research is showing that the old “left-brain, right-brain” dichotomy is not accurate.  There is a wonderful article from Scientific American that describes why this model doesn’t fit, given the latest neuroscience of creativity.  It’s a fascinating read.

Why does Creativity Matter?

Why Be Creative at All?  Because Creativity is a Radical Self-Care Practice

Creativity is a type of self-care.  It can also be a means of settling anxiety, allowing for “mental rest,” and recharging your own batteries.  Sometimes just listening to music or reading a non-work-related book can be a means of disrupting negative self-talk, or getting yourself out of a “rut” at work.  Being creative throughout your life improves your ability to be creative at work. My recent blog post on Creating White Space at Work describes the importance of carving out time in which “nothing” appears to happen, but creativity can blossom. Even a ten-minute music break can make a difference in productivity all day long, and enhance your sense of well-being.  It can give you space to contemplate the things that matter most to you, as described in this article about Creative Mind Breaks.

Why Be Creative at Work?  Because Creativity Enhances Leadership and Influence

There is a basic human need to create, as much as we need to eat, breathe, sleep and reproduce.  Once our basic needs for food, shelter and safety are met, we want to express ourselves.  In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for self-fulfillment is one of the highest  goals.  In this framework, creativity is the key component of “self-actualization.”  But it can only come after other, more basic needs are met. Leaders must understand that people need “safety, belonging and mattering” before they can trust and thus thrive at work.   This idea is crucial to a leader’s ability to generate trust, which is a prerequisite for motivation.  If you are a leader, understanding this need will help you motivate those who look to you for leadership to join with you in pursuit of a common vision.

Why Be Creative at Work?  Because Creativity Builds a Habit of Thriving and Resilience

Creativity helps human beings be more resilient.  In part, this occurs because it meets that need for self-actualization as described above. In addition, there is evidence that creativity can be healing.  Work with trauma survivors suggest that people who use creative skills will heal from trauma more quickly.  There is evidence that creative activities can help prevent or delay onset of age-related cognitive decline.  If you want to know more about these connections, see this scientific article from the Journal of Creativity and Mental Health.  The article does a good job of describing the link between creativity and resilience.   This article in the Huffington Post, or this article from the Resilience Institute are also worth a look.

Why Be Creative at Work?  Because Creativity Improves Productivity

I saved this one till last, because, frankly, I think the other reasons to seek creativity above are more important.  If we only want to be creative for the sake of improving productivity, then creativity becomes just one more  “key performance indicator.”  Nobody needs another KPI in work lives that are already over-measured. There is even some rationale that enhancing productivity kills creativity, and that you must choose between one or the other. While that perspective has some merit, focusing on creativity DOES improve productive outcomes at work.  Creative “breaks” are one way to accomplish this.  Evidence supports the idea that employees perform better when creativity is encouraged.   In addition, this article from the Muse explains how divergent thinking (which leads to creativity) and convergent thinking (which fosters productivity) can be combined to get the best of both.

So, the big idea here is that creativity is not just about art and artistry. Creativity is a basic human need that can help people thrive and be resilient as a means of self care.  In the workplace, fostering creativity can enhance leaders’ influence and improve overall productivity. Consider these thoughts the next time someone asks you if you are an artist.  You might just decide to become a “creative” after all!

Related Articles

Fast Company:  The 6 Best Tools for Creative Work According to Science
99U:  The 5 Most Dangerous Creativity Killers
Harvard Business Review:  How to Kill Creativity



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Sharon Hull, MD, ACC

President and CEO at Metta Solutions, LLC
Hi, and welcome to Metta Solutions.I am a physician and a professional executive coach .  I help people thrive by coaching them to manage change, grow their careers, develop as leaders and integrate personal and professional goals. My passion is working with self-reflective individuals and organizations to help them achieve their goals.  Subscribe to the Metta Solutions Community here.
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