7/1/2001 | 8 MINUTE READ

On the Management Side: Don't Let Fears Cramp Your Creativity

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Don't be too quick to anticipate criticism. Creativity can suffer if you cannot suspend critical judgment for a reasonable length of time.


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The more original an idea, the more open it is to criticism. There's a good reason for that. A fresh idea challenges the status quo and people tend to resist change. Fear of this resistance—as it manifests itself in criticism—may be preventing you from realizing your true potential as a creative individual.

You're not unusual if you feel criticism is directed toward you personally when the only thing really being criticized is your idea.

You can overcome this reaction to criticism by learning to evaluate criticism for both content and intent. It's a good idea, for instance, when evaluating criticism, to remember that your associates are also subject to a number of pressures. Criticism is seldom 100% objective.

But don't be too quick to anticipate criticism. Creativity can suffer if you cannot suspend critical judgment for a reasonable length of time.

Nothing hampers the creative process so much as critical judgment applied to an idea too soon. This doesn't mean that criticism has no place in the production of ideas. But premature weighing of "bits and pieces" of an idea should be avoided. The longer you can linger with an idea, the better chance it has of being fully exploited.

There is a second area to check: Do you feel embarrassed if your idea is rejected publicly?

Fear of visible failure hampers creativity. It's not unusual for an individual to present a new idea, have it fail, then never again try something new. Fear of adverse criticism narrows creative potential.

On the other hand, a truly creative person thoroughly examines the failure to identify what went wrong and why. He turns failure into a learning experience.

The greatest failure of all, of course, is not to attempt a new idea.

Those two fears—fear of criticism and fear of failure—combine to throw still another barrier across the road to creativity. This block is anxiety about self-esteem.

No one wants to make a fool of himself. But some people have a tremendous anxiety over self-esteem. They won't attempt anything that might threaten their self-image.

Recognizing this dread and putting it in its proper perspective will help you reduce its damaging effect on your creative efforts.

A lot of people laughed at the Wright Brothers...Thomas Edison...Alexander Graham Bell. But they were more concerned with ideas than with ego.

Don't worry about the immediate consequences of presenting a new or radical idea. Don't modify a plan or idea just to avoid possible loss of prestige and, above all, don't worry about "losing face" should your plan or idea be rejected.

As soon as one of your ideas works, you'll be surprised how quickly you'll forget the failures.

Give Instructions In Small Doses
When you have complex instructions to give, particularly to inexperienced workers, don't overwhelm them by explaining everything at once. Explain one portion at a time, making sure the employee understands it before you go on to the next instruction. Otherwise, the worker may give the impression that he or she understands, for fear that asking you to repeat the instructions will reflect on his or her intelligence or ability. The final result could be a royally botched up job.

Make Sure Those Complaints are Legitimate
Not all employee complaints are justified by the facts. Next time you find yourself facing a grumbling employee, consider these possibilities. They could save you from a lot of needless sound and fury.

Misunderstanding. Many gripes are based on simple lack of information. The person who misreads the booklet on fringe benefits...the employee who is reprimanded for a safety violation when he thought he was following instructions...the worker who doesn't get as long a vacation as another because he hasn't been with the company long enough—each is basing his dissatisfaction on a different frame of reference from you. Such emotional static can lead to verbal fireworks. A few well placed questions and some patient answers can clear the air.

Transferred anger. Employees are also parents, consumers, in-laws and many other things. The man who comes to work fresh from a quarrel with his wife or an exchange of words with his mother-in-law...or who lost more than he should have at his weekly poker game...or who is being dunned by creditors will often transfer his frustration and anger to the people among whom—or the conditions under which—he works.

A few tactful questions about how things are going at home can frequently uncover the true villain—and restore calm to the working place.

Faulty communications. Your instructions to an employee may seem crystal clear—to you. But they may be Greek to the person to whom they are addressed. Result: a badly done job and a guilt ridden employee who may gripe in anticipation of being criticized.

Solution: Make very sure, via questions, demonstrations, an open door policy, that employees fully understand what is expected of them.

Improper diagnosis. A worker complains about the performance of his machine. You investigate and find that faulty wiring is to blame. An irate employee gripes about the new specs for a job—until you point out that they come straight from the customer.

Sometimes an outside factor, one you have nothing to do with, is the cause of the complaint. Find it if you can—and make a friend.

Five Tests for Spotting Initiative
Choosing the right person to do a job is one of management's recurring challenges.

But how do you separate the doers from the daydreamers?

Here are five questions to ask about any potential "doer."

Does he present problems or solutions? "My former assistant invariably came to me in the middle of an assignment to tell me about a difficult problem he had run into. He proposed no solution, not even a poor one," recalls a vice president of manufacturing of a business machines company. "In other words, he was asking me to use my time thinking of possible solutions.

"The woman I have now also brings difficult problems to my attention, but she offers a possible solution or two. Usually one of her solutions does the trick. However, even when none of them has sufficient merit, they start me thinking about other answers."

Listen carefully the next time a subordinate brings in a problem. If he also brings a reasonable suggestion or two, you probably have a doer in your office.

Does he use available resources? One of the most frustrating experiences in assignment-giving is to have the assignee return again and again for help he could have obtained elsewhere.

If you find yourself responding in some of the following ways, you can be almost certain you are dealing with a non-doer:

  • "But the answer can be found in the file on this matter."
  • "My secretary could have told you about my schedule for next week."
  • "That point is covered in the minutes of the meeting."

On the other hand, if your subordinate rarely comes in with questions while working on a project; if he gets as many preliminary answers as possible; if he has made it his business to learn your point of view—keep him in mind for important assignments in the future. He knows how to do his job as well as how to give you more time for yours.

Does he know the facts? Watch for the subordinate who always is first with the answer.

The vice president of a paper manufacturing company had several people of approximately equal rank reporting to him. From time to time, he would ask them to bring in recommendations on various matters. Invariably, one of them came in to report ahead of the others.

It soon became apparent, however, that the speedy subordinate habitually neglected his homework; his recommendations rarely squared with the facts. The vice president concluded that the fastest man was the one he could rely on least. The doers took time to study the facts. They were somewhat slower but considerably more sure.

If, in making far-reaching decisions, you rely to some extent on the recommendations of others, choose individuals who show great respect for facts.

Are his reports in proportion to results? A doer usually lets his actions do most of the talking. Dalliers, dawdlers and daydreamers learn to camouflage their lack of achievement in torrents of words.

The head of a large editorial services company asks for oral reports in these terms: "Please skip all the background, the plans you made, the strategy you followed, and the hopes you have. Just tell me as succinctly as possible what you have accomplished so far." If the answer is "Nothing," the time can be constructively spent in suggesting what the subordinate should do. If, later, the results are still invisible, it's time to put someone else on the job.

A written report may tell a great deal about the reporter. If it is clearly a long-winded picture of a negligible result, take a careful second look at the reporter before assigning him another task. He may be excellent at writing reports, but mediocre in the runs batted-in department.

Does he get discouraged easily? When a subordinate is talented at explaining why tasks cannot be accomplished, he may be the fellow who can't accomplish them.

If an individual shows signs of discouragement at the first obstacle he encounters, look out. He's going to need more encouragement than you have time to give.

As a rule, doing goes hand-in-hand with a positive attitude. When the salesman thinks he can sell, his chances of making the sale increase. When the traffic manager is determined to find cheaper routings, he won't give up until he has done so. Whatever the mission, the person who believes he can accomplish it is more likely to do so.

This should not be construed to mean that a doer is an irrepressible optimist. But he does size up a task with a view toward completing it. That gives him a decided advantage over the person who finds almost every task difficult and every difficult task impossible.

Watch That Temper!
Managers with hot tempers rapidly gain a bad reputation and lose the respect of their people. Subordinates grow fearful, communications are frequently disrupted, teamwork disappears. In time, the experienced employee learns how to "play" the boss and develops techniques to circumvent a manager's immature behavior. In the process, however, some important things are lost: mutual trust, the willingness to pitch in during emergencies, cooperation. Of course, managers who continually lose their tempers usually don't last very long. But for those on the border line, a word to the wise...