Creative Leadership: The Fear of the Messy Unknown

Since it’s the beginning of a new year, I’m thinking about creativity: what and how do businesses and leaders need to change?

In last week’s post about creativity and leadership, I asked if readers thought they or their leaders were too analytical. (Creative Thinking and Leadership: Are You Too Analytical?) And a few readers commented:

  • Scott Hall said, “I think that our economics have caused people to be much more conservative and less likely to take risks and thus less creative.”
  • Hugh Sutherland said, “…creative thinking is not welcome in many situations, especially where a hierarchy exists, whether it be in a PTA meeting or a corporate boardroom, for fear of ridicule or simply showing up your boss and spiking your career opportunities.”
  • Cindy Patterson said, “I agree that creativity is not welcome in many situations.”

Where there is hierarchy, there is loss of creativity. There is much research on the effect, or lack of it, of incentive programs for creativity.

In fact, all of the research shows that it has the opposite effect–people are less creative when given a creativity bonus! They are at their most creative when given the opportunity to WANT to be creative.

One company even had innovation days when, for 24 hours, their engineers could work on anything they wanted to. Amazing things came out of this…

In “Reclaim Your Creative Confidence(Harvard Business Review, December 2012), Tom Kelley and David Kelley of IDEO identify four common fears that block our best ideas from coming to fruition:

  1. The messy unknown
  2. Being judged
  3. Taking the first step
  4. Losing control

There’s more to these fears than we care to admit.

Fear of Being Judged

Most of us care deeply about what others think of us, including our friends, family, superiors and trusted colleagues. While we don’t mind being judged in some situations, we rarely risk our business-world egos.

When I’m coaching executives, I’m privy to confidential stories people share about this. We don’t want our bosses or peers to see us fail, as gossip spreads quickly in the workplace. We therefore stick to safe solutions and suggestions. We hang back, letting others take the risks. Unfortunately, this approach prevents us from unleashing truly creative ideas.

If you continually censor yourself, you’re effectively trapped in a self-judgment loop. You must be courageous enough to express your ideas without fear, before they fly out of your brain and down the drain.

Start an Idea Notebook

Trust your intuition and embrace your ideas. Write them down in an idea notebook so you can systematically find them, when appropriate. Keep something handy for note-taking during downtime: in the shower, next to the bed, while jogging, in the car.

You can also:

  • Schedule daily free-thinking time in your calendar.
  • Defer judgment or critical thinking until later.

Creative Feedback

Nothing squelches creativity like poorly delivered feedback. When brainstorming with others, avoid using language that censors expression, and encourage others to follow suit. Instead of saying, “That will never work,” start with “I like…” and move on to “I wish…”

Open with positive statements instead of going straight to the negatives. Use “I” instead of “you” to signal that you’re expressing your opinion and want help. This makes others more receptive to sharing ideas and receiving suggestions, without feeling judged.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to turn the corner from analytical to creative thinking. Leave a comment. (Image: by sdmania at

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