October 17, 2016

Why It Pays to Be Creative at Work

Are you a “creative” at work?

Are you already thinking, “I’m a scientist, not an artist” or “my job doesn’t allow creativity?”  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 in many fields, it is a habit worth cultivating no matter what your discipline.

What, exactly, is “creativity?”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines creativity as the ability to make or bring into existence something new.  Most of us do that every day in some fashion, though we may not realize it.  Librarians take in information from books and media, but may end up writing about what they have learned and 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 organizational goals.  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 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.

But how does this thinking apply to you and your work? Tapping into your creative side yields many possible benefits for you and your team. Here are just a few.

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 10-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.

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.

Creativity builds a habit of thriving and resilience

Creativity helps humans 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.  Resilience also builds creativity, according to the Resilience Institute, and performance subsequently soars.

Creativity improves productivity

I saved this one till last because, frankly, I think the other reasons to seek creativity I’ve discussed 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 thinking that suggests 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, divergent thinking (which leads to creativity) and convergent thinking (which fosters productivity) can be combined to get the best of both.

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!

How do you make time for creativity in your professional and personal life?

Please share your experience, including any benefits you’ve seen. Let’s grow and thrive together!

Last updated April 30, 2018