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How To Be Less Creative At Work—And Why You Sometimes Should

Most of the time, the best solution to a problem isn't the most original one.

How To Be Less Creative At Work--And Why You Sometimes Should

[Photo: shironosov/iStock]

Creativity is undoubtedly an asset in the workplace, not only just for individuals but also for organizations. It's positively correlated with job performance, leadership potential, career satisfaction, and well-being. In fact, creative people, on average, have even been found to get a leg up in the dating pool.

Still, no human quality is universally beneficial, and even a trait as appealing as creativity can have its downsides, particularly in certain work contexts. Here are a few reasons why being less creative at work might sometimes be a smart move.

It Makes Your Manager's Job Easier

All other things being equal, it’s easier to manage employees who are predictable and rule-bound. Even when they say they value innovators, the reality is that many managers are often unwilling to put up with their employees’ most eccentric ideas.

What’s more, creativity always involves risk and uncertainty, and most managers are wary of this, making them more likely to hire and promote those who do what's expected as opposed to those can produce the unexpected. Likewise, managers themselves are generally more likely to be rewarded if they deliver on expectations, so it’s tough to blame them for shying away from creativity.

It Might Be Better For The Company

There are many circumstances where creativity pays off for organizations. But there are other times when companies benefit more from preserving the order of things than from continuing to pursue change. When companies are young and small, creativity helps them innovate and grow—and for that, there are no alternatives to risk-taking. But when they reach a certain size and maturity, most companies drift from experimentation toward stability and process.

This makes sense. While completely suppressing innovation is usually self-destructive, the reality is
that limited creativity is often just fine at this stage of the cycle. Companies may not actually need as much innovation as they think or say they do; more often, the real issue is an inability to put creative ideas into action, not a shortage of them in the first place.

Being Creative Isn't Easy

Creativity is a complex attribute, but most experts define it as the ability to produce novel and useful ideas. Many of us don't appreciate how difficult this is and tend to see ourselves as more creative than we actually are.

But there are really very few totally novel ideas, and most of the time the best solution to a problem isn't the most original one. In fact, most original ideas aren't useful, and most useful ideas aren't original. Only a small number of people—perhaps 5% to 10% of the general population—are likely to generate many useful and original ideas on a regular basis. This requires not just technical expertise (knowledge in a given field) but also general intelligence and the right combination of personality traits (namely, higher ambition, lower conscientiousness, higher extraversion, and higher openness).

If, however, creativity genuinely is your default inclination—if you thrive in unstructured environments, have a constant flow of unusual ideas, and are generally more eccentric and unconventional than your peers—then here are five ways to tamp down your creative instincts when it's wise to do so.

1. Pick A Boring Project Now And Then

Even if you're very creative, certain assignments are just pretty monotonous and uninspiring. In fact, creative people tend to have very specific interests that their most creative ideas revolve around. If your creativity is holding back your productivity and career success, then you can just focus on picking up assignments in those other areas that you aren't passionate about. Those things probably will attract fewer creative people in the first place (which means less competition), making your skill set more of an asset.

2. Team Up With Conscientious Yet Less Creative People

We all change our behavior from one situation to the next, including in response to other people. So if you team up with coworkers who are diligent, process-oriented planners—those you might find dull—they'll likely either inhibit your creativity or find ways to channel it. Most innovations result from teamwork, which often involves uncreative people working together with creative folks, with the former outnumbering the latter by a factor of around four to one.

3. Embrace Order And Predictability

One of the hardest and most painful things for creatives to do is live a structured and predictable life. But it isn't impossible, and sometimes it's worth attempting. Just spend a little more time planning, and tell your colleagues and manager what they can expect from you: Send detailed emails with a timeline for your upcoming work. Then try to stick to it. You may not enjoy it, but it might make your stock rise on your team, so to speak.

4. Say No More Often

Creative people often produce more when they're capable of saying "no" more often. If you pass up some exciting opportunities, you'll be able to focus better on what you're actually expected to produce. Creative people tend to jump from one project to the next, and simply learning to say "no" can be the best antidote to that erratic work style.

5. Find Other Creative Outlets

Even if you succeed at implementing all this advice and still fear that your creative impulses will sometimes get in the way, you can still channel it into other areas of your life—outside of work. Hobbies, artistic and scientific pursuits, and freelance work are just a few. It's commonplace for people to supplement their full-time jobs with other assignments, as outlets for their most creative ideas. So even if your main gig doesn't let you innovate as much as you'd like, you can probably craft one on the side that does.

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