Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why Jerks Kill Creativity

I suppose there are some jerks or turkeys working by themselves who are creative. But most endeavors, including creative endeavors, involve working with other people. As noted in earlier blog entries, jerks tend to demean other people, especially those working under them, and they generally pollute the work environment with caustic remarks.

Creativity may involve confrontation and the challenge of ideas but it cannot tolerate personal attack. Let’s look at the process of creativity to see why this is so. Some years ago I wrote a paper on creativity and group dynamics and I noted that there is a difference between renovation and innovation. Renovation involves the modification or improvement of something that already exists, whereas innovation involves the development of something new. I suggest that renovation can be strangled by jerks but innovation is stopped dead in its tracks.

Renovation is hampered by jerks because they tend to personalize critiques and this discourages suggestions. Innovation is stifled because this type of creativity requires some very special conditions that are antithetical to jerk behavior.

What are the conditions of creativity? I suggest the creativity requires: 1) persistent determination to solve the problem; 2) willingness to expand the boundaries of the problem; 3) willingness to consider multiple possibilities; and 4) respect for something I call the “gestalt.”

The persistent determination to solve the problem is somewhat self-explanatory. It involves a willingness to think about a problem and to learn as much as possible about things related to the problem. In short, it is strong curiosity. It is also lack of certitude, and jerks tend to be blessed by certitude. I am reminded of the quote by Bertrand Russell, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts.”

A willingness to expand the boundaries of the problem is another form of
open-mindedness. If the problem is faster communication, then breeding faster horses for the pony express is not as good as working on the telegraph. In fact, sometimes creative innovation finds a solution to a problem that you didn’t know existed. The Walkman and the Ipod come to mind. Again jerks get in the way. Steve Jobs appears to be an exception because some people think he is a jerk ( “The No Asshole Rule” book written by Robert Sutton, Ph.D.), but a creative one. I contend that he is a genius first and a jerk second. He would probably do even better if he were less of a jerk.

Willingness to consider multiple possibilities is a process where ideas need to be evaluated without regard to status or personality. I recall a story of a group of executives trying to solve the problem of long wait times at elevators at a busy hotel. There were many complaints. They finally decided it was necessary to tear out several hotel rooms to make way for more elevators. The lady cleaning the room and emptying the ashtrays muttered that she thought that this was silly. One of the executives was smart enough to ask her why she thought it was silly. She said, “Well at the last place I worked they had the same problem. They installed mirrors on each side of the elevators and people were so busy looking at themselves that they forgot about the wait time. The complaints stopped.” If the executive was a jerk, I suspect that he would not have asked the advice of a mere “cleaning lady.”

Finally, respect for the gestalt. This is a little more difficult to explain but many scientists suggest that oftentimes their pre-occupation with a problem is rewarded with a sudden solution to their problem. It springs full-blown into their mind. Oftentimes in the shower or at night. These insights must be respected and they seem to be the result of patient
open-mindedness. Again, jerks seem to be excluded from this process. Maybe you want to make your workplace more creative, see

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