Burning Employees’ Creativity: Or, it’s whether communication has positive consequences … or not

CEO to the workers in his organization: “We can talk about everything.”
Worker [quietly in the back of the room]: “But it wont change anything.”
Overheard in a large organization

I think when it comes to creativity at work, using ideas to improve work — the processes, the products — there are two ways you can burn your employees’ creativity (and crush their work motivation).

The first is if employees do not dare to talk about things to improve, because they fear repercussions for themselves. After all, if you identify something to improve (or worse, something that genuinely hurts peoples and their careers), you might get associated with the problem. There are supervisors who blame the messenger or who are prone to classify someone who gives criticism as “the dissatisfied employee”, especially if this person is the only one who dares to talk about it. Some supervisors also see criticism, even honest criticism, as attack on themselves, either their leadership/management skills or themselves as a person. Even if its only about the issue, talking about the issue itself becomes impossible, because the supervisor reacts angrily before you can make your point. It’s a career limiting move of the worst kind.

But there is a second way supervisors can burn employees’ creativity: If one (or more) employees did give honest criticism — but nothing changes. There might have been a reaction in the situation, for example, an half-hour monologue about the difficulties in the industry, or that some things are just part of the job (yet, strangely, a good friend or a partner who works in the same industry at another company does not have these issues). Perhaps there are some assurances that a change is “no problem” — but despite the assurances, nothing changes.

I think the main mistake many supervisors using this “strategy” make here is that problems do not get away — and often, neither does the employee (finding another job isn’t easy, no matter how hard the employee might try). In contrast to a company brochure or website, which shows only the advantages of the company and which might be the only information a prospective employee has, an employee actually working for the company knows what actually happens in the building. That solutions are not implemented despite workable solutions. That administration or investors are blamed, despite the problem being in the department. This person sees what can only be described as hypocrisy, where one face is presented to the customers or potential employees, and how things really are. Not the usual slight polish (almost) every organization does when it presents itself, but an utter disregard for the welfare of the employees when it comes do deeds and not only words.

And what’s worse, if one employee was courageous enough to talk, it’s usually not only this one employee who has a problem — there are others who think the same way but do not say anything. But they sure as hell notice the reactions. And if there is no (positive) reaction, this will spread in the company (and beyond!), and sooner or later, no one will care anymore to point out mistakes, or misconceptions, or areas of improvement. Even new employees will be quick to pick up the feedback culture and the reasons for the dissatisfaction of the older employees … and conform. Over time, people on higher levels make multiple bad decisions, e.g., completely misunderstand a technology or a new trend, and nobody who actually knows better (e.g., due to personal experience with the technology) intervenes — and time, effort, money, and other resources are wasted, chances are missed, the brand name suffers, and perhaps the company folds in the long run.

This does not mean that supervisors should try to fulfill their employees every wishes — far from it. Although some supervisors will probably deliberately misread it this way to insulate themselves against this criticism (hyperbole is a coping strategy against criticism, just not a very good one).

But it does mean that (good) supervisors and CEOs should be able to differentiate between how a company presents itself to its customers/investors, and how the company talks to its employees … and listens to them. Employees are not the enemy. There are — unfortunately — some supervisors who would rather have no ideas at all than see someone else’s ideas being successful (I always wonder how they got into this position, but well, there are multiple roads to power). And if ideas are picked up, they were always “their” ideas all along. Usually, the good employees will realize this problem quickly and leave, and the bad ones, the broken, the disturbed, will stay. Good luck surviving with them. And good luck attracting qualified employees, because this information will spread beyond the organization.

But if employees are treated seriously, if the employees know that they can contribute — which means that their voices, their skills and expertise, are heard, that they get credit for their contribution — they can keep the company alive, and might even improve it.