For a More Creative Workplace, Foster Collaboration and Respectful Engagement
May 31, 2016 | Cecily Erin Hill
Though we often think about creativity as the production of an original work of art – a painting or a novel, perhaps – creativity is also the ability to synthesize and build on information. Creativity is innovation and problem solving; it’s seeing patterns and learning to explain them. When we say that something provokes creativity, we usually mean that it is in some way inspiring or that it encourages people to think outside of the box.
New research on creativity at work, however, indicates that creating the conditions for creativity might be less about inspiring an individual than it is about creating good teams and a space for respectful, common dialogue.
In one recent study, researchers from the University of Taiwan, Taiwan Tech and the University of Colorado found that “a collaborative team climate has a direct positive relationship with creativity.” “‘Open’ team environments, where members are encouraged to participate in discussions,” they argue, make it possible for team members to “generate” new information. “Diverse ideas,” they say, inspire “fresh thinking.”
And more research from Abraham Carmeli, of Tel Aviv University and Jane Dutton and Ashley Harden, of the University of Michigan, explains that respectful engagement in the workplace amplifies creativity among individuals and teams alike. Carmeli, Dutton and Harden define respectful engagement as “interpersonal actions that confer a sense of value and worth” – these include recognizing and appreciating others as unique individuals and listening to them, as well as “emphasizing another’s good qualities” and “making requests not demands.”
Significantly, respectful engagement with others makes them feel accepted, which, in turn, “opens people up to diverse points of view and makes them more attentive when engaging with people who might be different from themselves.” People who accept and open up to one another are more likely to engage in genuine “Relational Information Processing,” which the authors describe as “the process through which organizational members use conversation [. . .] to reflect upon their goals and work.”
This combination – of genuine, respectful engagement and group reflection – helps people “build on other’s thoughts and integrate these different perspectives” and “generate, build on and combine a greater variety of information.” In other words, open discussion with team members does more than offer people the comfort to think creatively – it provides them the tools for creative production.
In a world in which creative problem solving is increasingly crucial to employees at all levels of business, it’s in everyone’s best interest to create the conditions for creativity. And how fortunate we all are that these are the same conditions that make for humane organizations: openness, inclusion and the respectful engagement of all employees.
In other words, to foster creativity at work, we need to make space for conversations that encourage people to recognize one another’s perspectives. We’ve written before about how discussing literature helps participants recognize each other and themselves – how it helps them feel accepted, and accept others in turn.
In these conversations, participants share their ideas and their personal experiences with one another. As one participant described the it, Books@Work “brought out things that are in our lives, and it got us closer. I felt like we got closer as a team.” Another explained that participating in Books@Work helped him feel more comfortable problem solving with his colleagues:
“I’ll try to problem solve myself, especially when I don’t feel comfortable engaging with somebody. . . [Books@Work] gives you the a little bit more opportunity to know somebody, feel comfortable with them. [Afterward,] I felt no problem approaching people.”
Books@Work seminars give participants the chance to know each other deeply – to learn far more about one another than they would have otherwise. What is more, they open the door to more conversations down the road. Or as a participant said, “It created conversations, later. There are conversations that I’m holding with coworkers that, ordinarily, I wouldn’t.”
Conversations like these make our workplaces more human. They help us recognize the life experience and perspectives of our colleagues. Surely it’s no coincidence that they, in turn, spark something else deeply human – our creativity.
Image: Tomioka Tessai, Mt. Penglai (Mountain of Immortals), 1924, Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi, Japan, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Creativity and Social Skills: What Machines Can’t Do
Creativity on My Mind: 5 Takeaways from the National Endowment for the Arts
Just Listen: A Simple Tool for Minimizing Bias and Transforming Relationships
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Cecily Erin Hill
Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.