5. Emotion is a Foundation for Enhanced Creativity and Innovation

Emotions influence numerous critical elements in organisations, from creativity through to performance

“Innovation happens best when we reduce our fears and ego defensiveness, thereby freeing our minds to imagine, create, connect, and explore the new and unknown with others in a non-competitive way. That happens best when people feel psychologically safe and trust each other. It is all about emotions.”

Emotion is a foundation for enhanced creativity and innovation, yet there is a myth that says emotions should be left at home. Would that be helpful to organisational life? Would the Agile Leader choose to ask people to come to work without excitement, joy or enthusiasm?

Positive Emotion and Neurochemistry, The Link to High Performance

Over 15 years ago a research scientist called Barbara Fredrickson asked, “what’s the point of positive emotions?” The resulting scientific focus on this question has profoundly changed how we view the power and importance of positive emotions.

It turns out positive emotions are the glue that keep us together, they are critical to cognitive functions such as imagination and creativity. They keep us going when times are tough and ensure we work collaboratively and effectively with others. Positive emotions, Barbara concluded, are the essential building blocks that raised us from disparate bands of hunter gatherers, to large, happily co-existing communities of city dwellers.

It has been discovered, for example that oxytocin, is produced in the brain and is critical to group settings. It increases positive attitudes, it is a key player in social bonding and social cohesion. It also drives the tendency to act in ways that benefit people who we believe to be part of our social group.

“Empathetic, emotionally intelligent work environments have a good track record of increasing creativity, improving problem solving and raising productivity”. Daniel Goleman.

So positive emotion combined with are most basic neurochemistry are the part of the emotional DNA of co-operation, of dreaming big and achieving the impossible.

Yet for most leaders today, positive emotions are dismissed as mere frills.

Creativity at work

Creativity is increasingly seen as vital to competitive advantage. Leaders are under growing pressure to generate creative output. People’s moods and emotions influence several critical elements in organisations, from creativity to performance, to collaboration and decision making.

Agile Leaders inspire others to bring their best selves to their work. They understand that emotion is an important part of the human experience and when individuals work with their emotions, they achieve more of their potential. Innovation and creativity rely heavily on respect that the Agile Leader encourages by being accessible, open, honest and transparent whilst expecting the same from others.

Removing barriers to creativity

Research has shown a number of environmental factors that block creativity; these include criticising new ideas, political problems within the organisation, an emphasis on the status quo, a conservative low risk attitude among top management and excessive time pressure.

“Innovation happens best when we reduce our fears and ego defensiveness, thereby freeing our minds to imagine, create, connect, and explore the new and unknown with others in a non-competitive way. That happens best when people feel psychologically safe and trust each other. It is all about emotions.” Langley Group.

The Agile Leader has a responsibility to remove those blockages to creativity, to encourage motivation and to ensure an environment that is safe for teams to thrive

Just leave the negative emotions at home

On the other hand, highly negative emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness or fear are considered unhelpful in a working environment. It’s easy to confuse “emotion” with “emotional”. Emotional is usually a term reserved for those people who easily express a range of emotions in public or those who are considered enthusiastic over-reactors; in these terms, emotional behaviour is not helpful in workplace situations.

When faced with someone else’s negative emotions, some people will tend to change their own emotional state, quite often to a state that mirrors the other: frustration rewarded with more frustration, anger with anger, sadness with sadness and so on. Others may find these uncomfortable emotions too difficult to deal with and will move away from their source, either by literally walking away or by withdrawing emotionally in order to protect themselves. It is easy to see why people are asked to leave their emotions at home, emotions appear to be the cause of the “bad stuff” that happens in the workplace.

However, it is impossible for human beings to NOT be emotional and also bad for their health to suppress emotion. Much of the ‘bad’ emotion is triggered by behaviours that are linked to their work environment. That environment, in many cases, lacks basic psychological safety and as a consequence the stress hormone cortisol begins to ‘run the show’. Cortisol inhibits the production of oxytocin, it makes us more self-centred and more concerned with our own survival, rather than the wellbeing of others.

Typical symptoms of a cortisol rich environment include; bickering amongst senior leaders, power bases being formed, lack of co-operation between groups or departments and lack of sharing of resources to name just a few.

So how do we address this as leaders?

The Role of the Agile Leader

Positive emotions will spread organically throughout organisations, amongst team members and to customers; encouraging positive emotions will help individuals contribute more creatively to the effectiveness of their organisation. The role of the Agile Leader is to balance support for new and creative ideas whilst managing risk in a way that doesn’t affect the stability of the organisation – critically though they have to remain open continuously to the possibilities that enhanced creativity and innovation can bring.

A great Agile leader understand the power of emotions and regularly supports a positive emotional tine in the team, whilst remaining aware of those who may be succumbing to stress or over work. Agile leaders push back when they need to, especially to senior management who neither understand the demands on that team, nor the size of the technical challenges sometimes casually thrown at them.

In short, you’re focus on the teams wellbeing (knowing that that return on investment is enormous) is the same focus you would put on your own family’s wellbeing, or hopefully your own wellbeing.

Action Step:

  1. Do you look after yourself? How?
  2. If not what one thing can you do today to ensure you’re looking after your own mental, emotional, physical wellbeing?
  3. Do you know how your team are doing? Is anyone in particular struggling, what do you intend to do to support them?


Positivity. Barbara Fredrickson


Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Daniel Goleman

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