Teaching people to be more creative


Can you coach someone to be more creative?

To some degree, our creativity levels are hard to change. They come down to personality traits such as intellectual curiosity, openness to experience and unconventionality, which are largely set by the time we reach early adulthood. Creative individuals have also been found to have higher IQs and lower latent inhibition – that is, an “inability” to suppress irrelevant or inappropriate thoughts, which provide the raw materials for their creative ideas.

So creativity is not 100% malleable – personality sets its limits – yet it can still be nurtured via deliberate interventions, especially over a long period of time. Genetic studies suggest that genes determine only 10% of the variability in creative potential, so there is a lot of room for development.

Here are the main factors to consider when attempting to coach creativity:

1) Give lots of feedback: Given that most people are not as creative as they think, it is important that any attempts to coach creativity begin by providing individuals with feedback, especially when they are narcissistic, since narcissism inflates people’s estimates of their own competence to an unrealistic level. Feedback is essential to help people close the gap between their confidence and their competence.

2) Provide training in creative thinking. Several exercises have been found to enhance creative performance. For example, teaching people to detect novel ideas, take on challenging tasks, retrieve knowledge outside their main area of expertise, or combine unrelated things or ideas can all boost creativity. Meditation and relaxation have also been found to improve creative performance, partly by creating more favorable mood states. Managers can boost employee creativity by fostering meditation and relaxation not only in their employees, but also in themselves – the more relaxed and mindful managers are, the more they will value and reward creative ideas in others.

3) Assign people to tasks they love. One of the most effective methods for enhancing creative performance is to increase individuals’ motivation, particularly intrinsic motivation (their task-related enjoyment, interest and involvement).

4) Help employees develop expertise. For any subject matter, creative performance is a function not just of potential, thinking skills and motivation, but also of expertise. Most people are inclined to believe that knowledge interferes with creativity – that the more you read and find out, the harder it is to be creative. But without expertise or task-relevant skills, you cannot produce anything creative. If you don’t know how to play the piano, you’ll never be able to improvise on it; if you don’t speak a language, you won’t be able to tell jokes; and if you can’t code, you won’t be able to develop an original app. Therefore, a higher level of expertise, particularly in an area your employee is passionate about, will increase their chances of being creative in that domain. Of course, expertise is not sufficient for creative performance. It is not enough to master the elements of the system – one also has to rearrange them in original ways. As Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Finally, let’s not forget that though individual creativity matters, team creativity is far more important. The Western notion of “creatives” as individual superstars is in stark contrast with the realities of real-world innovation. Creativity is mostly a team effort that can only result from coordinated group activities, because it requires individuals to leave aside their selfish agendas to work as a team – and that is why leadership is a key driver of creativity.

(Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at University College London and the author of “Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt.”)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate 




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