Are You Unknowingly Undermining Your Team's Creativity?

This article was originally published in Forbes. Read it here!

Leaders, like most people, have the best intentions for meeting their goals. They want to support their teams and help them grow so everyone can work toward making the company successful. The challenge comes when an intention is unknowingly undermined by actions. Leaders who are not aware that their actions are causing problems feel frustrated and annoyed with their team’s performance.

Jack, the CEO of a midsize company, shared with me that he was frustrated with his leadership team’s lack of innovative thinking. “They don’t think ahead to the future,” he complained. “They don’t brainstorm new ideas and come up with creative solutions to the complex problems we are facing now. I’m concerned that we’re losing more of our customers to competitors who have better solutions, but no one here seems to be capable of coming up with new solutions.”

That was Jack’s description of the situation. After talking with his direct reports individually and then sitting in on two meetings with them, it was obvious to me that the problem wasn’t that the team was wholly lacking in the skills of creative and futuristic thinking. The problem was that the CEO’s behavior consistently undermined his goal and the team’s efforts to discuss new ideas.

Whenever team members offered a new suggestion, Jack immediately drilled into them asking for answers to a seemingly endless stream of questions. His questions had a tone that implied that if they did not know the answer, they were not doing their jobs properly. Jack’s facial expressions were serious and sharp. He would control the conversation, speaking immediately after each of his team members made a comment. He did not allow for ideas that were not fully researched to be explored. Jack’s behavior made it clear that he would make all the decisions and that new ideas would come from him.

In the early brainstorming stage, people don’t know how everything will work, they don’t know which details are most important, and they don’t have answers. The CEO’s intense and critical questioning effectively shot down one idea after another, making the free flow of ideas uncomfortable for anyone in the room with him.

Jack genuinely wanted to help his team develop into a high performing team of innovators, yet on his own, he couldn’t see that the problem wasn’t with them -- it was with him. Fortunately, Jack was open to coaching for himself and for his team. This is what I shared with him: Leaders with the best intentions focus on exploring solutions and behave differently than he had been.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, there are specific behaviors to use with your team to ensure your actions match your intentions:

• Promote discussion by saying, “We are facing a tricky challenge. None of us knows what the best solution is at this point, so let’s explore this together. At our meeting next Tuesday, please come prepared to share ideas on how we could solve this issue.”

• Start the meeting by asking for ideas and then listen. Listen deeply, pausing to reflect on what has been said. Summarize what you’re hearing as themes and ideas emerge from the discussion.

• Let three or four people speak before you say anything so that you are not the facilitator speaking between each comment. Have eye contact with people for 3-5 seconds while they are speaking and then look at someone else.

• Stop being in the mindset of judge and critic, particularly in brainstorming sessions.

• Encourage experiments to test ideas to see what results can be achieved. Expect some degree of learning and trial and error, and resist criticizing or assigning blame. Take a positive view of the experiment by emphasizing the learning that came from it.

• Once every quarter, provide the team with retreat time out of the office to get the creative juices flowing; give people time away from the check-list operations of the day-to-day work.

• Take the team to see an organization that is highly creative -- a non-competing firm that is doing something cutting-edge. Then ask, “What is the equivalent in our business?”

The best leaders I’ve worked with know this: There’s a time for thinking critically and a time for thinking creatively. When it’s time to think critically, turn on that part of your brain and use it only for analyzing and making decisions. Make the decision and then clearly communicate why you made the decision you did. When it’s time for thinking creatively, turn off the critical, judgmental and sharp thinking, and engage again in describing the desired outcomes, collaborating and listening. Encourage your team to dream and to have fun with ideas as they imagine new possibilities.

If your goal is to create a team of innovative thinkers who can envision cutting-edge breakthroughs, bring awareness to what you may be inadvertently communicating. Make sure your behavior is in sync with your intentions and your mode of thinking is appropriate for each stage of the creative process.