4 Ways to Stifle Employee Creativity

Creativity in the workplace isn’t limited to a business’s graphic designers, copywriters, or marketing department. Thinking of new, innovative ways of doing things is the key to staying ahead of the competition. Whether it’s an outside-the-box financial analysis of potential new markets or a new procedure that helps create a safer work environment, fostering an atmosphere of creativity leads to a stronger, more productive company overall.

Here are four ways some leaders, despite their best intentions, stifle employee creativity.

Autonomy is an important part of fostering creativity. So, when leaders constantly step in to micromanage every aspect of a project, it discourages the free thinking that often leads to new ideas. For employees who feel they don’t have enough autonomy in their work, the goal often shifts to trying to please their supervisors, while creativity takes the backseat.

Some of the negative effects of low autonomy on employees may include stress, disengagement, poor health, and lack of confidence. In fact, in a study from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, Erik Gonzalez-Mule, the study’s lead author, said “… findings suggest that stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision-making, while stressful jobs can actually be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision-making.”

Work environment isn’t conducive to creativity
Environment has a major effect on our creative abilities. Big, corporate workplaces are often satirized as cold and drab, but many have discovered the benefit of creating at least one area that is colorful and different from the rest of the workplace to help foster new, outside-the-box ideas.

As reported in an article on Forbes.com, research from Exeter University’s School of Psychology “found that employees who have control over the design and layout of their workspaces are not only happier and healthier — they’re also up to 32% more productive.” So, an investment in a more creative space for employees may pay off with your company’s next innovative breakthrough.

“We’ve always done it this way” mentality
If it isn’t broken, why fix it, right? There is comfort in predictable results, and in many situations, the well-established processes and procedures that have always worked are exactly what you want. However, when it comes to inspiring creativity, you have to be willing to step outside the norm.

The late Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a U.S. Naval officer and computer programmer, is credited with saying “The most dangerous phrase is ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” If employees feel they are bound to a system without any room to explore new ideas, creativity and innovation will stagnate, which not only leads to turnover, but the company will eventually fall behind competitors that are more willing to step outside the box.

Unwilling to accept the possibility of failure
While working toward creating a long-lasting, practical lightbulb, Thomas Edison famously explained his repeated missteps along the way by saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Fear of failure is detrimental to creativity and had Edison not embraced the occasional defeat, he wouldn’t have amassed more than 2,300 patents on a wide range of inventions.

In the same vein as the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, unwillingness to accept the possibility of failure is also a major creativity killer. Innovation is the key to staying ahead of the competition. So, leaders who are obstinately risk-averse and unwilling to lay it all on the line for a big idea out of fear of even the smallest chance of failure create a work environment where creative thinking is in short supply.

What are some other ways creativity is hampered in the workplace? What are some ways your workplace inspires creativity? Let us know in the comments section below.

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11 Responses to 4 Ways to Stifle Employee Creativity

  1. Bob February 6, 2018 at 5:56 am #

    I embrace everything above and want to pull in creative thinking to improve the way we do things. Problems I have is when employees take the autonomy I give them they assume they get to do things for our business their way. Many times the rework costs me more money than my jobs generate if I let them move forward. Or they are upset when I catch it upfront and I insist we do it my way and start managing which they perceive as micromanaging. There is certainly more to it but the above is a snapshot.

    • Refresh Leadership February 6, 2018 at 7:45 am #

      There is definitely a fine line you have to walk between giving employees autonomy to take a creative – but smart – risk and making decisions you feel are most appropriate for your business. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Dave February 6, 2018 at 6:05 am #

    Very interesting read, well done!

  3. Denise February 6, 2018 at 8:25 am #

    Bob, I agree completely.

  4. Chad February 6, 2018 at 8:47 am #


    You bring up some great points. I have found implementing a new idea implementation process and a review team, is a great way gather ideas, creativity and mitigate risk.

    • Refresh Leadership February 6, 2018 at 8:54 am #

      That’s a great approach, Chad! Smart risk-taking produces empowered employees, who then produce business growth.


      • Joy February 9, 2018 at 8:55 am #

        Great article – thanks for this! Too many of us have experienced first-hand the detrimental effects of a leader’s need to micromanage and/or an extreme fear of failure. These characteristics certainly drain any level of employee creativity, passion and confidence. Its a challenge to strike a healthy balance between effectively directing day-to-day operations and encouraging creativity and reasonable risk taking. However, we must find that balance in order to ensure employee growth and satisfaction as an essential component to further organizational growth and development.

  5. Bob February 6, 2018 at 9:00 am #

    The trouble I am having is how to give employees the freedom to do things they want and hold them accountable for the results. It almost feels I am arguing with them at times when they want to do things their way vs my way. Have communicated that I want their ideas but that does not mean I will do it their way every time. So they get their feelings hurt. Had one deal ystdy to let them manage a job and lost $900 on a $7900 job vs what should have been a $1900 profit. That’s a $2800 negative swing to our company’s account. Venting a little here but it’s not their money and they still expect to get paid.

  6. Shelley February 6, 2018 at 10:35 am #

    This article describes my work environment prior to buying an Express franchise. It was horrible, extremely stressful. You nailed it in describing the effects of micromanagement, “we’ve always done it this way” phenomenon, and the extreme risk-averse mindset. One of the tools I use in my own business now is incentive pay for specific tasks. It helps with accountability and the incentive is bigger if our profit is higher so it’s a win-win for everyone. We have occasional fails but they are minor and the wins are FAR bigger. One strategy I use is to define the parameters that are “musts”. This is the starting point and is especially important for people not as far along in their skill set. The team can flesh out the details within the framework provided and that’s where their creativity can grow.

    • Refresh Leadership February 6, 2018 at 10:58 am #

      Great comment, Shelley! As the business owner, final decisions are ultimately yours to make, but it’s great that you have found an effective process to have autonomy within parameters without it becoming “micromanaging.”


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