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3 Ways Leaders Unknowingly Limit Their Team’s Creativity

The better you are at setting good rails for your team, the more they will feel freedom to bring their best ideas and work to the table.

This article originally appeared at INC.

There are many things a good leader does to help their team gain focus, stay motivated, and produce great work. However, there are also some very common mistakes that many leaders make that they don’t even know are killing their team’s ability to engage with their work. This is especially true when doing creative work, because it requires tremendous trust and an ability to take risks that could be costly to correct later.

The better you are at setting good rails for your team, the more they will feel freedom to bring their best ideas and work to the table.

Here are a few ways that leaders unknowingly squelch their team’s creativity:

Failing To Define The (Actual) Problem

Most organizational work tends to be divided into projects and tasks, which makes it easier to organize and assign. However, creative work isn’t really about projects to be completed, it’s about problems to be solved. Often, the core problems behind each project are poorly defined, meaning that team members are left on their own to figure out what the team is really trying to do. Different understandings and stories emerge, and this creates dissonance inside of the team as the gap widens between what the team thinks it’s doing and what it’s actually doing.

Great leaders don’t assign projects, they define and assign problems to be solved. This allows great latitude in how the team approaches the work, but ensures that they see clearly the outcome they’re tasked with achieving for the client or company. This means the team will often approach the problem from unexpected angles rather than simply toeing the line and cranking out the project.

Step back and look at the projects your team is tasked with. Is there a clearly defined set of problems behind each, and do team members know what they’re accountable for solving?

Judging An Idea On Its Presentation, Not Its Merits

Some leaders I’ve met are quick to judge an idea when it’s not presented in a way that resonates with them. Whether that means the team member explained it poorly, or they simply didn’t understand the full scope of what they’re proposing, the leader immediately dismisses the idea and moves on to something else. However, this can mean two things: overlooked value, and de-motivated team members. Whenever a team member introduces an idea, resist the urge to immediately categorize it as “useful” or “garbage”, and instead try to see its potential merits. There’s a good chance that there’s a kernel of value, even if it’s obscured by a poor presentation.

Take a pause when a team member shares an idea. Instead of immediately dismissing it, consider potential merits that aren’t immediately obvious.

Doing Everything In Groups

Everyone loves a good group brainstorming session, no? Not exactly. In fact, it’s the bane of many peoples’ existence. There are some people who’d rather undergo a root canal than sit through one more group idea session for a project. These people do not thrive in a group setting. Rather, they are better solo-performers, often coming up with great ideas when working at their own pace. One leader I recently interviewed called them “slow twitch” people. While they seem disengaged and disinterested in a meeting, they’re not. They’re processing. Their best ideas will often emerge a few hours after the group brainstorm, once they’ve had time to think things through.

Consider giving your team some things to think about in advance of a meeting so that the “slow twitch” people have a chance to come up with ideas on their own, while not under the pressure to perform in a group setting. Then, they can introduce those ideas in the meeting for everyone’s consideration.

Pay attention to the little things you do as a leader. It’s the small, everyday breaches of trust that lead to your team’s inability to perform when the pressure is on.

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Last modified: December 1, 2022

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