In the late 1990s, researchers from the University of Maryland teamed up with the University of Würzburg in Germany to study the creative mind. What promotes human creativity? What inhibits it? How strong are those influences? These were but a few of the many questions they set out to answer.
The results of their work speak volumes to our continuing and ever-increasing understanding of the importance of mindset and the ease with which we as leaders can influence the creative mental capacity of our teams.
One of their most telling experiments involved a single piece of paper.
Two groups of graduate students were assembled for each experiment. The first group was given a paper puzzle with a mouse and an owl standing together at the center of a maze. The students were tasked with helping the mouse elude the hungry owl by solving the maze and helping the mouse escape. When the maze was solved, the group was given a creativity test.
The second group was given an altered photo. At the center of the maze stood a single mouse. Outside the maze was a block of cheese. The students were tasked with helping the mouse find its way out of the maze to reach the tasty treat. When the maze was solved, the group took the same creativity test.
Repeated over time, the experiment yielded one statistically significant finding: The group working to avoid being devoured by the owl consistently performed lower on the creativity tests than the group working its way toward the banquet of cheese.
The researchers found that the presence of even the slightest threat, even a knowingly imagined one, had a measurable, detrimental impact on our creative abilities. Conversely, those given a “positive” orientation toward problem solving, even an imaginary one, saw a boost in their creative thinking ability.
The mind is an immensely powerful machine. So much so, that it can even inhibit or enhance its own ability to think creatively with nothing more than a single, suggestive image.
The results confirmed what chemical studies of the brain had also concluded: When facing a threat – real or otherwise – the body seeks fuel to fight or to flee (the old fight-versus-flight syndrome). Oxygen, glucose and the blood necessary to transport them are all channeled to our arms and legs for immediate action.
Where does all that blood get pulled from? That’s right. The brain. Because, honestly, when facing a charging lion, who needs algebra?
The lesson for leaders is obvious. Leaders understand the power of motivation, but far too many leaders employ negative forms of motivation. They cite a new and aggressive competitor, stricter regulations or a weaker economy as reasons for needing creative solutions to tighter budgets, aggressive sales and reduced overhead. Too few leaders rely on the benefits of re-imagining those same challenges into opportunities for growth and development.
What would happen if, rather than posing these economic and competitive realities as threats to be avoided, we posed them as opportunities to learn more about ourselves, to grow stronger as a team, to hone our skills and to tap into strengths and abilities we have yet to realize? Should we not welcome and even celebrate these “owls” for the “cheese” they really are?
Re-imagining challenges as opportunities, celebrating and welcoming them as the “cheese to devour” rather than the “owl to avoid,” might be all the difference between motivating and empowering a team to “thrive” and not just “survive” new realities.
So, for just a moment look to the owls that worry you. Now, imagine the greater rewards they truly offer you.