Why You Should Treat Your Employees Like Children

How can U.S. businesses become more innovative? Encouraging your employees to be more creative is a great starting point. Encyclopedia
November 17, 2010

How can U.S. businesses become more innovative? Encouraging your employees to be more creative is a great starting point. Encyclopedia Britannica Blog recently talked to creativity expert Kyung Hee Kim, an associate professor of educational psychology at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.


Kim analyzed the results of a creativity measure called the Torrance test for on nearly 300,000 American adults and children and found that Americans’ creativity has declined drastically in recent decades. But she also has some ideas for how parents can encourage their children to be more creative. Seeing how easily these ideas can apply to employees, I translated Kim’s advice into the following 11 tips for helping your employees become more creative.

  Preserve Curiosity. 
“Children’s curiosity should be satisfied and encouraged,” says Kim. Do you have an employee who asks tons of questions? Don’t get irritated—encourage him or her to keep asking. In fact, all employees should be encouraged to ask questions about every process and idea in your business—and to find new answers.

2.  Focus on Ideas. 
In business as in school, we often focus on getting things “right” rather than being imaginative. Learn to value employees’ efforts to be creative even when they fail. A person’s something “wrong” might open your eyes to a different, and better, way of doing it.

3.  Raise Nonconformists. 
“Creative individuals do not like to follow the rules,” Kim says. This is a tough one, because no business can thrive without rules. I think the key to working with nonconformists is knowing which rules are too important to break—and which can be bent in the interests of innovation.

4.  Be Playful. 
Just as children shouldn’t be forced to act like mini-grownups, don’t force your employees to be deadly serious in all occasions. Meetings don’t have to be droning, PowerPoint laden affairs. Find ways to make them fun by encouraging spontaneity, openness and approaches to problems that may seem silly.

5.  Be Ready for Drama. 
Kim notes that many parents and teachers punish creative children because their behavior makes them harder to manage. It’s a tradeoff: Creative people aren’t always easy to live (or work) with, so if you want the fruits of innovation, you may need to be ready to deal with a few “drama queens.”

6.  Foster Independence. 
Kim says parents should let their children have independent activities, like sleepovers or camps. In the same way, you can encourage innovation by letting your employees handle tasks alone without hovering over them. (This can be easier said than done for many delegation-challenged entrepreneurs, but the results are worth it.)

7.  Travel. 
Kim says parents should expose children to different experiences, places, cultures, food, languages and people. To encourage innovation on the part of employees, expose them to different departments in your business. For example: take them along to client meetings or to tour a client’s facility or encourage them to attend conferences and industry events so they meet others outside the little world of your business.

8.  Give Time Alone. 
Most creative people need privacy or time alone to let their ideas germinate, Kim notes. In today’s socially networked, wide-open office environment, time alone can be hard to come by—but it’s crucial for innovation. Create spaces where employees can sit and think undisturbed, allow them time for breaks outside, and don’t fill every moment of the day with meetings.

9.  Be Less Clean and Organized. 
Extremely organized and clean home environments can hinder children’s creativity, according to Kim. In the same way, focusing too much on what an employee’s workspace looks like or how neatly his or her work is completed distracts from innovation.

10. Find a Friend. 
Creative children tend to have imaginary friends and friends outside their peer group. While you probably don’t want your employees talking to imaginary friends, encouraging friendships among different departments, age groups or levels of authority is a great way to expose people in your business to new ideas and enhance their innovativeness.

11. Find a Mentor. 
Many studies of children have found that a mentor is key to creative achievement. Look for mentors for your team—whether it’s someone within the company, or someone outside it who can provide a different perspective. Mentoring can even take the form of reading books about innovative business practices.