How Bosses Accidentally Make You Less Creative

10/12/2012 05:36 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

Leaders of today's world know exactly what I mean when I say that it is becoming increasingly more important for newer and more innovative ideas to be brought to the table. Our workplace culture demands for us to experience stroke of genius 'aha' moments to be occurring on a daily basis. One wrong decision, or one insight too late, can result in a loss of millions of dollars in revenue.

The 'aha' moment has long been speculated about by scientists and non-scientists alike, and even though it does not actually appear in the shape of a light bulb above our heads, it is still one of the single-most fascinating occurrences our human brain experiences. Therefore, it is important for the leaders of today's world to understand how this happens now more than ever, because thinking is the core of our existence and civilization. Our thoughts dictate our future, our moods, our personality and more importantly, our success.

However, the issue with this is that no one really knows how to think effectively. We don't know how to alter the conditions in our minds in order to solve more complex linear problems - which unfortunately are the kind of problems often we run into at work. Bosses, especially need to understand how to think effectively not only in order to perform at their fullest, but to get the most of out subordinates as well. By not knowing how to think efficiently, bosses hinder overall employee performance.

If people knew more about how a successful leader should think, and not just about what a successful leader should do, I envision our society reaching a whole new level of creativity, engineering, and overall success.

So what is an 'aha' moment? Well, in simple terms, it's a defining moment where you gain wisdom - or experience a flash of pure genius. It is an insight from within us that often times illuminate's answers to questions that remained unsolved. According to Merriam-Webster, an insight is defined as "the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively".
Sounds great doesn't it? Unfortunately, insights don't happen often. Research shows solving a problem that requires creative out of the box solution prompts changes in the brain that do not occur under normal problem-solving conditions. (More information can be found in this study.)

The research prompted me to think about how we can have more insights. I found myself needing an insight on how to gain more insight.

Over the years at various workshops, I have asked thousands of leaders how they solve complex problems. The answers were highly consistent. No one seemed to solve complex problems at will. The answers always seemed to suddenly arrive, either as one falls asleep, wakes up, exercises, showers or drives. Or even while doing something pleasant and repetitive, like knitting, gardening or cooking. My own research into the 'aha' moment shows up to a five hundred percent improvement in having insights be reached, by following a few simple rules. Here are some of my big discoveries.

An open mind is a quiet mind
Mark Beeman is one of the eminent neuroscientists studying the 'aha' moment. As he said in a paper in the first NeuroLeadership Journal, "...variables that improve the ability to detect weak associations may improve insight solving." In short, insights tend to involve connections between a number of neurons. An insight is often a long forgotten memory or a combination of memories - memories that don't have a lot of neurons involved in holding them together. In other words, insights are made up of weaker, less noticeable connections. And because we have millions of neurons constantly speaking to each other, we only notice the louder of the signals. Just like how it's hard to hear a vibrating cell phone at a loud party, it's hard to notice signals that have less energy than the general energy level already present in the brain.

Thus, we have insights when our overall activity level in the brain is low. This happens when we're either doing something that doesn't require a lot of mental effort, when we're focusing on something repetitive, or just generally more relaxed like when we wake up. Insights require a quiet mind, because they themselves are quiet.

This technique of learning how to quiet down our busy minds is especially important for today's leader, because a quiet mind is an open mind - open to new ideas, that is.

Our attention at any moment can be externally focused, like on these words, or internally focused, like on an image you might see in your mind when hearing a word like "elephant". We tend to meander between these two states all the time. When people have insights, Jonathon Schooler finds they are 'mind wandering', which is like a form of daydreaming. They are not focused externally on the problem. Mark Beeman finds an alpha effect in the visual and auditory cortex just before someone has an insight, meaning that people shut out external data in order to save their resources for noticing the insight. So, insights are more likely when you can look inside yourself and not focus on the outside world. When you feel safe enough to 'reflect' on deeper thoughts and not worry about what's going on around you for a moment.

The happier we are, the more we can see
Being slightly happy, versus slightly anxious, allows for people to solve more problems and be more creative. Mark Beeman has worked out the details of how this happens, showing that when people are happy they are more likely to notice a wider range of information, than when they are anxious because they become more 'tunnel visioned'. (More information can be found in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.)

Forget about it
Lastly, the final piece of the puzzle states that if you want insights you need to stop trying to solve a problem. To put it plainly - people who are distracted do better in complex problem-solving than people who put in conscious effort.

Psychologist Stellan Ohlsson developed this idea into 'inhibition theory' which states that we need to inhibit the wrong solutions for the right ones to come to our attention. Also, effort tends to involve a lot of electrical activity, and can reduce the likelihood of noticing the quiet signals of insight.

The point is, you have to let go of the problem for the solution to come to you. This quality often surprises people, yet remember that solving a problem that requires creative out of the box solution prompts changes in the brain that do not occur under normal problem-solving conditions.

What does this all mean for a leader?
While you can't make an insight come, you can put your brain into the state that significantly increases the chances of insight occurring. It's what successful leaders do every day. This of course is easier said than done. When leaders in an organizational context hit road bumps that must be resolved, most of us tend to do almost the exact opposite of what the brain needs. We tend to put pressure on ourselves, or have that extra dose of caffeine, or gather more resources, or worse, we brainstorm as a group, which creates a lot of mental noise. Heck, our brains get so loud that we can't even hear ourselves think. Bosses accidently make employees less efficient and creative all the time because they are unaware of the way people work most productively, as in the case of brainstorming.

A better approach to thinking as a collective unit is to define a question as a group, then for individuals to take time out and do something interesting but repetitive and simple for a while, and allow your non-conscious brain to do the solving for you. There's a study on the improvements you get in insights taking this approach here. In my work with organizations, we have generated a 100% to 500% improvement in manager's ability to solve complex problems with their teams, by teaching them about insight and giving them some models to practice with (there's a case study with details on this here).

It can be done
All in all, while it seems unlikely we can 'control' when we have an insight, it's now very clear that we can dramatically increase the likelihood that an insight emerges. The trouble is, we have to get used to letting our non-conscious brains do the work. Instead of driving ourselves crazy looking for new and improved answers - relax, let go, and you might find a whole world of new insights emerging not only for you, as the leader, but for your employees too.

PS: There's more on the science of insight in my earlier book 'Quiet Leadership', which teaches leaders a process for bringing others to insight. Also my recent book 'Your Brain at Work' has several chapters devoted to unblocking an impasse.

The 2012 NeuroLeadership Summit is in NYC, Oct 15-17. Can't make it? Watch free live streaming of the event here.