When you’re leading, the way you communicate can make a huge difference to people’s creativity. In one mode, they can be twice as creative as the other.
Fleeing an Owl or Seeking out Cheese?
In an experiment at the University of Maryland (Friedman & Forster 2001), students were asked to solve a simple puzzle. They were given a picture of a maze, with a mouse in the middle. They had to draw a line from the centre of the maze to the exit, to show the mouse the way out.
Some of the students were instructed to help the mouse reach the cheese at the exit of the maze. Others were told to help the mouse escape a predatory owl.
After they’d solved these (rather easy) maze puzzles, the students were asked to do a creativity task. The group who’d been helping the mouse find the cheese were twice as creative as the group who had been fleeing the owl.
Avoidance Mode vs. Approach Mode
What’s going on here? Fleeing the owl – even in imagination – puts the brain into “avoidance mode.” This is about survival – it’s an aspect of the “fight-flight” response, which closes down options and brings about an increased sense of vigilance and caution.
Seeking the cheese, on the other hand, puts the brain into “approach mode.” This is characterised by reduced stress and increased acceptance of challenge, curiosity and creativity. What does this mean in practice?
When people face difficult situations, they naturally feel challenged and easily slip into avoidance mode. That’s a shame because it will impair the very creativity they need to meet the challenge and come up with good solutions.
How to Help?
What can you do to help people shift into the approach mode instead? This is a subtle art and many books have been written on the subject (e.g. Jackson & McKergow, 2006). But here are a couple of simple possibilities to get you started:
- when you hear someone talking about what they don’t want, try asking them what they would like instead. (After all, if you went to the supermarket with a list of what you didn’t want to buy, you’d end up with a very unusual dinner!)
- when someone’s fixated on a problem, try asking them what an ideal solution would look like (this can really free up people’s thinking).
- when someone seems really stuck, try asking them about similar situations in the past, and what’s worked then (this can give them a sense of possibility)
Questions like these get people thinking for themselves in very constructive ways – shifting themselves away from the defensiveness of the avoidance mode, and into the creativity of the approach mode.