How to Avoid the One-Two Punch that Kills Creativity and Initiative

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There’s an absolutely deadly, yet little-known combo that can destroy the prospect of creativity and initiative, on the part of so-called followers.

Here’s the math that I shared about — and with –  my students, as I began a class on risk-taking on Monday:

50 students x 12 years of  pre-college schooling x 180 days per year x 5 periods per day = 540,000 total class periods.

I asked this question:  “How many times were you told to ‘take a risk’ or ‘break a rule’ by a teacher in a classroom?”

I counted 8 students’ hands up in affirmative reply.  Most of them said it happened once in a while.  One student — who explained that he went from sophomore year of high school to a “middle college” where he earned his diploma and an associates degree — said his college teachers constantly told them to take risks.  (Unsurprisingly, he takes initiative regularly in my class — asking questions, starting online discussions, attending office hours or lunches to discuss, query, and argue with students and me about effective leadership.)  So, 540,000 class periods, and perhaps 100 instructions to take risk.  In other words, people are deeply schooled to passivity.  It’s amazing that anyone takes any risks, ever.  That’s punch one.  What’s punch two?

Insecure (human) managers and bosses react defensively to challenge.  This defensive reaction — I say “reaction” like a chemical reaction, not a deliberate “response” — further drives people into hiding and to passivity. I’ll offer myself as a pitifully ironic example.  The aforementioned class went for 80 minutes. It was an utterly thrilling class on risk-taking:  students used paper gauges I’d given them to regularly monitor their sense of discomfort as I challenged them to volunteer up front, or to share what their gauge read, or to disclose to others how uneasy they felt when one student boldly moved to the front and momentarily took over my class.  People strongly criticized the way the student had come to the front.  In turn a few sensitive students confessed that they felt vicariously threatened and vulnerable at what they saw as “attacks.”  So, in real time, we got a tremendous look at how dangerous it can seem or feel to people to step forward and set themselves apart, even when the authority figure is explicitly requesting and affirmatively sanctioning this risk-taking.

Here’s the ironic part:  Near the end of class, I felt this terrific urge to shame or discipline one student…even after 80 minutes of my inviting initiative, creativity, push-back, and risk-taking. (The student happened to be laughing, inappropriately, as I was wrapping the lesson.) I felt irritated, indignant, and on the verge of pointing the professorial laser pointer of attention at him and thus asserting order, structure, and discipline. I was inclined to the kind of heavy-handed response that can traumatize a child, a student, a new employee, an intern, or even a spouse.  I didn’t jump down the student’s throat, but fortunately caught myself. But I must shamefully yet honestly say that the instinct was full bore. Call me Putin, but I was ready to crush the rebellion.

That’s, of course, the second punch!  People in a group wonder if it’s safe to challenge the authority and the prevailing direction.  Somebody does just that; but if they don’t do it with consummate political and psychological finesse, if they use the wrong tone, if they “embarrass the boss in public,” or meet any number of other conditions that trigger that universal human insecurity….Look out.  And when an authority publicly pounces — as gentle as they may think their corrective is — the impact is heard, felt, amplified. The message is sent. And those 539,900 class periods that never invited push-back, creativity, and genuine risk-taking will once again, solidify like stone.

The point is not to coddle people, not to “let them off the hook” for not taking risks! The point is to manage your worries of losing control and proactively create a safe environment to foster initiative, honesty and creative risk-taking.  You can only do that if you

Lead with your best self!

Dan