How to Motivate Your Workforce Through Creativity

Creativity counts. Especially when it comes to your bottom line.

Erik Wahl

Creativity counts. Especially when it comes to your bottom line.

Several recent large-scale studies by both IBM and Forrester took a look at how creativity was impacting business results and found that companies fostering creativity not only achieved higher revenue growth but also a greater market share than their competitors. 

But how exactly do you motivate your employees (or yourself) to become more creative? It's not about pizza parties, casual Fridays or flexible work hours. And, in many cases, it's not about financial gain either. It's about fostering a true culture of innovation and rewarding ideas instead of just rewarding results. 

Real creativity comes from "unthinking." It's about pushing new thoughts to the limit, getting out of your comfort zone and creating breakthroughs. Many businesses don't recognize soon enough that they are in a creative slump and, by the time they do, their workforce has become mass of human robots, systematically going through the motions, doing the bare minimum, and waiting for the clock to strike 5 p.m. 

When people start thinking about work as just that - work - it's time to shake things up. It's an opportunity to grow, throw employees a curve ball, engage them, and get them back on the track towards innovative thinking. 

Businesses can start by fostering a culture of innovation. Sadly, that phrase has become cliché without anyone actually doing it and proving its worth. We tend to push aside business clichés like "thinking outside the box," "changing the paradigm," and "fostering innovation," when we should be paying more attention to their true meanings. The educational system, as well as the hierarchical corporate structure, is designed to hold creativity, innovation and new ideas at bay. 

We're almost afraid of them. 

Why? Because risk and failure are so closely associated. Just take a moment to think about our school system. From a young age, children are rewarded for getting a 100 percent on their spelling test or an A+ in math. They typically aren't rewarded for a creative idea, picture or poem. If it's not part of the standardized testing or quarterly report card, it's not important. All of our problem-solving skills have been rooted in analytics rather than in forging new ideas and differentiating from the competition, which is why those skills have atrophied over time. It's been trained out of us.

That's why it's so important to start rewarding ideas instead of results. And, remember, rewards do not equal dollars. Simply receiving money for creative ideas is actually demotivating in the long run. Try having the reward itself be creative - a limo ride to work every day next week, a cleaning service for the employee's home, a mid-day surprise party …  it's about catching your employees off-guard and getting people talking. If you can create a reward that gets the entire organization talking, laughing and sharing, its positive impact will radiate throughout all levels of the business and create a more positive overall environment that is primed for even more creative ideas to blossom. 

For creativity to thrive, a few barriers need to be brought down first. As business leaders, we tend to critique strategy and question business plans without concern for squashing creativity. That is, until you realize your workforce has become stagnant and unmotivated. 

• First, remove the phrases "we've never done it that way before" and "that will never work" from your vocabulary. If pioneers and creative thinkers are constantly being shot down and discouraged, they are going to stop trying.

• Encourage your employees to be curious and stay curious. We lose our sense of curiosity at an early age. We're told what is right and wrong, and we accept it as gospel truth. We don't challenge those assumptions. In the words of Steve Jobs, "Stay hungry and stay foolish." 

• Don't be complacent. Complacency will be the architecture of our downfall. 

• Don't judge or critique. It will discourage your employees from submitting new ideas. 

• Don't be afraid to take a risk a fail. We need to redefine failure. If failure continues to be seen as a weakness, we will never try anything new. When we harshly criticize mistakes and make people afraid of being wrong, no one succeeds. 

If we look at failure as an opportunity to grow, adjust and adapt, then the sky is the limit. Personally, I fail more than anyone I know. But that's because I risk more than anyone I know. The key is to fail fast and fail forward, then adjust and come up with a new idea. You never know, that next creative idea could be the breakthrough that changes everything.

Erik Wahl is a former corporate employee turned internationally recognized graffiti artist, a No. 1 best-selling business author, and speaker. He was the keynote speaker at this year's Philly SHRM Symposium, which took place on April 2, 2015 at the Sheraton Philadelphia where he demonstrated to the audience through a mix of live art and messaging how to step outside of convention and discover new and unexpected solutions to business challenges.