Crew Coach: Watch out for creativity killers

Mar 28, 2018 by Rob Gannon

Crew Coach: by Capt. Rob Gannon                         

New ideas on ways of approaching and accomplishing things can be really valuable, but can also be quite fragile. Any manager of people must realize that responses to creative thinking can foster and value new thought and approaches, or can stifle and kill creativity – and possibly morale, in the process. There are a number of creativity killers, but for this space I’ll focus on four that probably many of us have come across at one time or another.

Let me start by first stating that, obviously, every new idea is not going to be a winner. Sometimes they are not thought through or can’t be implemented for a variety of reasons, but even so, the fact that a team member’s mind is working and thinking about trying to make things better is a good thing. An idea can be creative, but it must also be appropriate, useful and actionable. In other words, if it doesn’t fit, doesn’t improve anything and in no way can be implemented, it’s probably time to move on. But even when a particular idea may not be workable, the thought process should be respected and future creative thinking encouraged.

The four “creativity killers” I’m going to mention here come from Teresa Amabile, a psychologist and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. She has researched and studied creative thinking extensively and came up with these four inhibitors.

  1. Surveillance: Hovering and constant scrutiny. This stifles the essential sense of freedom needed for creative thinking.
  2. Evaluation: A critical view that comes too soon or is too intense. Creative ideas should be critiqued – not all are equally good, and promising ones can be refined and honed by helpful criticism – but evaluation is counterproductive when it leads to a preoccupation with being judged.
  3. Over-control: Micromanaging every step of the way. Like surveillance, it fosters an oppressive sense of constriction, which discourages originality.
  4. Relentless deadlines: A too-intense schedule that creates panic. While some pressure can be motivating, and deadlines and goals can help focus attention, they also can kill the fertile “off time” where fresh ideas flourish.

Allow me to add some examples to this list. With surveillance, think about when we are trying to lay something out on the computer and someone, whose help you didn’t ask for, is hovering over your shoulder blurting out what is intended to be helpful advice. Push that key, scroll up, wait, go back, etc. How is the old creativity operating under that scenario? If someone is working on an idea, step back and let them go. This falls under the over-control area as well.

As far as evaluation goes, take a breath and ponder the possibilities. If it’s pretty obvious the idea cannot work, the reasons can be explained. A discussion of the idea can also be delayed if it’s not the right time to delve into it. We can tell our creative thinker they have an interesting idea and although time doesn’t permit a conversation now, let’s revisit this at some agreed to time. This gives both parties time to think and possibly formulate some questions and answers.

With relentless deadlines or a schedule that’s too intense, the down time just isn’t there to look deeper into creative ideas. Have you ever been on either side of an exchange that goes something like this: “Hey, have you thought about that idea we started discussing yesterday?” “Oh, you know, I just haven’t had time to even think about it.” So creativity finds itself at a standstill, with too much pressing stuff flying around, shutting it out. The person with the idea may feel it has been devalued. It happens; there can be a lot going on. But if things always seem to be like that, if creativity is always shoved in the back seat, maybe it’s time to look at how priorities are being handled.

With some awareness and sensitivity to the nature and value of creative thinking, new ideas can be encouraged and respected, even though not always agreed upon or implemented. When appropriate, new ideas that are useful and can be put into action are certainly worthy of consideration. Remember, creativity killers can be morale killers – and that’s not healthy for any team or crew.

Enjoy the voyage.

Capt. Rob Gannon is a 30-year licensed captain and certified life and wellness coach ( Comments are welcome below.