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Toxic Culture or Thriving Ethos?


Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University, conducted a study several years ago with two groups. The first group was given the following prompt: You are seven years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?

The second group was given the same prompt minus the first sentence. This means they didn’t imagine themselves as seven years old – they remained in their adult mindset. Neither group could see the other prompt given.

Next, the psychologists asked their subjects to take ten minutes to write a response. Afterwards the subjects were given various tests of creativity, such as inventing alternative uses for an old tire, or completing incomplete sketches.  Zabelina and Robinson found that “individuals [in] the mindset condition involving childlike thinking…exhibited higher levels of creativity than did those in the control condition.” This effect was especially pronounced with subjects who identify themselves as introverts.

Which begs the question: What happens to our innate creativity when we age?

Zabelina and Robinson discuss a few reasons. The first is that regions of the frontal cortex – a part of the brain responsible for rule-based behavior – are not fully developed until our teenage years. This means that when we are young our thoughts are free-flowing and without inhibitions. Curiosity, not logic and reason, guides our intellectual musings. The second is that current educational practices discourage creativity.

Sir Ken Robinson says, “The whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.” So that’s where we lost our creativity.

Plato said “Whatever is honored will be cultivated.”

The opposite is true too. What we do not honor, we do not cultivate. Creativity has suffered at the hands of university entrance.

But, there is hope…no matter the reasons, the authors stress, adults can still tap into their more imaginative younger selves. Creativity… giving life to an idea, expression, thought, movement or a construct is life-giving for people, vital to organizational health, and directly impacts the mission. Every system has within its ranks the creative answers to the most challenging questions that system faces. Which means that innovation is not to be delegated as the solitary work of the Marketing Department or the Research & Development group.

Your climate matters. Strong organizational climate is found where creativity and innovation is honored. Better yet, where it is fueled. Everyone in our organizations has something to offer. Do we give them the space and permission to wrestle with the challenges and opportunities our organization faces?

We know that a toxic culture is a place where…
…new ideas can be seen as a threat to the establishment
…there is a pervasive fear of failure
…we are structured so as not allow out of the box thinking
…micro-managing is a way of life
…there is not enough time nor the permission to utilize one’s “work” time to be creative
…the physical work environment is disheartening
…there is no mechanism for brainstorming
…the generation of new expressions and ideas is limited to certain senior leaders or appointed positions.

So, let’s turn that around. A thriving ethos is a place where…
…new ideas are invited and encouraged as a way of finding new paths forward.
…we embrace failing so we can learn a new way.
…we structure to permit innovation in and out of the box.
…we unleash the “what if” in everyone.
…we provide tinkering space that might lead to the next break through idea.
…we design our spaces to invoke a catalyst of creative energy.
…everyone brings fresh thinking.

Does your organization more closely resemble a toxic culture or a thriving ethos?

 

Shane Roberson

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