Creating an environment where ideas can flourish

How do you create a space that encourages creative thinking? Barnaby Lashbrooke finds out...

As founder of Time etc, a virtual assistant provider that has helped people at 10,000 companies worldwide, I know how important it is to get the most out of your staff. Small businesses appreciate the value of someone who will show up, figure out what needs doing and work out the most efficient way to get it done. But initiative in a person needs one very particular thing to flourish – a safe environment.

The most important thing I’ve learnt about management – admittedly through trial and error – is that people need to feel psychologically safe, in a non-fear based and appreciative space, to reach their full potential. Only when this environment exists are people able to think smarter, generate ideas and execute them.

This was once an alien concept to me. When you grow a business you rarely have the luxury of doing it in a safe environment. But I’ve seen first-hand the impact it has on employees. It really works.

At Time Etc, we do this by creating an environment where people can achieve more. We teach people about emotional intelligence and help people cope with life and work through The School of Life. We’ve done away with managers and instead offer one-on-one coaching to ensure people feel supported. And every day at the office begins with an ‘appreciation huddle’ – when people single out and thank a colleague who has helped them to achieve more.

Since we started paying attention to building a safe, supportive culture, productivity has increased by 25 per cent and staff retention by 33 per cent. There’s a knock-on effect in customer retention, too, which has risen by seven per cent.

Sharon Peake, chartered occupational psychologist, business coach and founder of Shape Talent explains why this works: “An organisational climate that supports proactive and self-starting behaviours is important for innovation because there is a strong link between anxiety and creativity. When we get highly stressed our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we can find ourselves in ‘fight or flight’ mode. When this happens, the brain produces a stress hormone called noradrenaline which pumps blood around the body, increases our heart rate and increases our oxygen.

Sharon Peake

Although most of us don't face life and death situations regularly, Peake explains, “our brains can still respond in the same way, to everyday stressors in our environment.”

She adds: “Some interesting research studies have shown that by increasing a person’s level of relaxation, more creative ideas are generated. In one study, participants who crossed their arms during an exercise – a negative form of body language – were less able to solve problems than participants who had their hands resting on their legs.”

Peake says when we’re worried we are more likely to retreat into ‘safe’ behaviours like being task focused and not doing anything that might go against the grain. By contrast, when people feel supported and at ease, they don’t worry about presenting unusual or different ideas, taking risks and thinking and acting more creatively.

So there you have it, the reason a safe climate where employees feel supported and can take risks without fear relates to greater organisational performance.

Businesses looking to enhance innovation should not shy away from creating a nurturing environment, though it’s important to strike the right balance between safe and hand-holding. Leaders must be open and transparent, and invite employees to engage in decision making. Online communication software can be critical here, particularly internal social media feeds. Company-wide feeds can be a really good forum for sharing ideas and getting immediate peer feedback. That feedback can help develop a good idea into a great one.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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