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Creativity Bias: Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones

Biases and Creativity

Thoughts and feelings are integral to understanding mankind, and the majority of mental processing happens outside of conscious awareness. In order to dig a little deeper, the implicit association test (IAT), among other methods and measures, can allow us insight into parts of the mind that people “are unable to express, either because they do not want to, or because they do not even know they possess them” (Smith and Nosek, 2010). Let’s see how that spins out in creativity and the biases hindering creativity. 

The Hedgehog, the Fox and Tim Cook

Two years of development, thousands of engineering hours and Apple’s new product was ready for a spectacular launch. Or not? Something was holding it back: the disagreement between Tim Cook and Apple’s chief designer Jony Ives. The battle between numbers and creativity. Ive was Apple’s secret weapon, its creative core. He was the man behind the clear and pure lines. Cook wanted the marketing in the lead and not the design, let alone letting Ives run the launch. 

Under Jobs it was obvious that Ives was in total control of design, and launch was part of design. In Wall Street the financial community feared that if Ives ever left it would shave off a significant share of the value of Apple. Well, after a disagreement he did leave, to be hired back later as a consultant. What is behind this fear of creative thinking and why do managers shrink back from creative and sometimes unorthodox solutions? To find out we need to take a closer look at human cognition.

Creativity and Why We Tend Not To Like It

We applaud creativity but we actually don’t like it. We like it in children because then it is still harmless but in grown-ups and especially colleagues we are afraid of the disruptive quality of their creativity. There is even a strong association between the concept of creativity and other negative associations like vomit and poison. These words come from the mouth of Jack Goncola, a business professor at the University of Illinois at Urban Champaign. Goncola has spent the last decade studying the underlying factors that motivate and hinder creators, innovators and change agents. In the fast changing environment of modern business this has become a pressing question for many managers and leaders.   

Don’t Rock the Boat

Studies show that we lean towards the status quo. A.k.a. don’t rock the boat; we harbor an implicit belief that status quo means safety and seek protection in the group we work with. Yet creativity is always lauded as the life blood of business and life changing innovations, spellbinding entertainment, and great art. However, preceding that appreciation is usually a threshold that stops ideas, or concepts taking hold, surviving and let alone being executed. Who doesn’t know the frustration when it seems that you are standing ankle deep in the organizational mud?

In the Way of Change 

The science of implicit bias shows that what people say about creativity isn’t necessarily what they really feel about it. And that doesn’t only go for creativity. 

In social identity theory, an implicit bias is an unconscious association, belief, or attitude toward any social group. Due to implicit biases, people may often attribute certain qualities or characteristics to all members of a particular group, a phenomenon known as stereotyping. In many circumstances the implicit bias can and will get in the way of change. The behavior of shirking away from creativity caused by implicit bias affects many areas of the organization, such as marketing, sales and above all innovation. We think that the current definition of implicit bias is too reductionist and that this bias can affect organizations, markets and brands. The reason behind that is that these areas are heavily influenced by creativity. Especially in Organizational Change Management (OCM) it can be a serious roadblock on the way to lasting and meaningful change.  

Implicit and Explicit

As mentioned at the beginning, it is important to realize that implicit biases operate almost entirely on an unconscious level. While explicit biases and prejudices are intentional and controllable, implicit biases are less so. Sneakily hiding behind socially acceptable behavior or linguistically appropriate noises they can expose the dark side of the organization. Staff and co-workers may even express explicit disapproval or approval of a certain creative idea, attitude or belief while still harboring similar biases on a more unconscious level. 

The reason for this implicit bias against creativity can be traced back to the fundamentally disruptive nature of novel concepts, plans, and original creations. 

There is always the uncertainty of undesirable results, backlash, and loss of face that will create unrest and instability. The urge to avert risk is very strong and Dr Mueller of the University of San Diego noticed many CEOs and company managers professed to want creativity but reflexively turned down novel ideas. Be careful what you wish for, seems to be the right expression here. Only every once and a while a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk comes along who forces his (creative and business) vision on the organization to show us that biases can and will work disruptively as we have mentioned above in the case of Jon Ives and Tim Cook.    

Nodding Heads and Leadership

Needless to say that implicit biases against the new can and will seriously hamper changes that are necessary in an organization. Who needs nodding heads around a meeting table or in a strategy meeting when leadership needs to convince or even tempt stakeholders, management, or workers that changes are the way forward. Leaders will say “we’re innovative” and when the idea goes nowhere, the employees are angry or afraid. Especially middle managers who are expected to meet the metrics of change are faced with a career threatening paradigm. This creates a conundrum because organizations in uncertain circumstances may really need creative solutions. It is the role of leadership to recognize the processes and biases that get in the way of creativity and change.  To create dialogue, challenge groupthink, and promote creativity we can use behavioral strategy techniques like war games, assign a devil’s advocate (someone chosen to argue against an idea), or use alternative stories. During war games, employees are assigned, based on their views on a specific decision, to the red or opposing blue team. The teams present their arguments to relevant stakeholders in a mutually agreed-upon format and time frame. Alternative stories is an intervention that challenges employees to present multiple outcomes to the same sets of facts. 

Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset

Why are some people devastated by failures and setbacks whereas others find ways to learn from failures and rebound? Stanford professor Carol Dweck answered this question by introducing the terms growth mindset and fixed mindset. Dweck has held the position of Professor of Psychology at Stanford University since 2004, teaching developmental psychology, self theories, and independent studies. 

Growth mindset is the understanding that abilities are flexible and can be developed through effort and resilience. The fixed mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that abilities are innate and cannot be changed. Growth mindset has been applied to corporate environments and has been found to increase overall productivity and performance. Intuitively this seems to make total sense. Norms of innovation encourage novel ideas and approaches which help develop new products or services. Employees that exhibit a fixed mindset usually follow the same routines leading to the same outcomes. However, in companies that value a growth mindset employees are empowered to innovate and progress. 49% of employees in GM companies report that the company fosters innovation. 

Last Words…

Some people are more likely to be devastated by failures and setbacks whereas others find ways to learn from failures and rebound. Thoughts and feelings are integral to understanding mankind, and the majority of mental processing happens outside of conscious awareness. On a smaller scale the same goes for organizations. We applaud creativity but may not always like it. Creativity is as much an integral part of the success of an organization as any other part of the business process, and should be treated as such. Ignoring or being scared of the contribution of creative thinkers just because it is not always possible to come with the right metrics is to the detriment of innovation and growth. Growth mindset is the understanding that abilities are flexible and can be developed through effort and resilience. Stimulating a growth mindset is a good way forward for an organization to embrace creativity and to put it to good use.

We hope this article was useful to you and if you’re looking for a behavioral business partner who can drive change in your organization, we’d love to schedule a call or coffee.If you want to learn more about behavioral insights, you can have a look at our blog page.

About Neurofied

Neurofied is a management consulting and training company specialized in Brain & Behavior. We help teams and organizations design, implement, and optimize their change management, growth strategy, learning & development and much more with insights from behavioral psychology and neuroscience.

Since 2018, we have trained 1500+ professionals and worked with 50+ teams of companies like ABN AMRO, Tesla, Calvin Klein, and Adidas. We are also frequent speakers at universities and conferences.

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Ishita Aradhey

Brain and Behavior Strategist @ Neurofied