Published in Jan-Feb 2021
If King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were alive, I wonder how they would react to the quest for the Holy Grail in the modern era – creativity; a concept that has overtaken our lives and although it has taken a backseat to innovation, creativity is a construct or skill that we claim to greatly value. I say claim because from the time we are kids, we are admonished, rewarded and punished to conform. Ironic isn’t it? The one thing we exasperatingly want from adults is the very thing we smothered in them as children.
A lot has been written about unlocking creativity, but what are the internal factors that block creativity? We cannot build on weak or unstable foundations and before we can get the level of creative excellence we want, we need to understand the inner fear in ourselves and in our employees and colleagues.
We have all heard about the flight, fight and fright responses that are part of our primeval coding. These responses are designed to protect us from harm. The problem arises when they become part of our personalities. At any workplace you will see people exhibiting one of these responses – flight, fight, fright or freeze and the other responses, which are fawn or pretend. Let’s examine them one by one.
As Simon Sinek, the British-American author and inspirational speaker points out, we have been promoting and encouraging toxic leaders in our office spaces. Bosses who send out the message that something has to be done at any cost are unintentionally encouraging people to literally do anything and that includes using unethical means to achieve a goal. So the chances are that the people who achieve their targets have probably run roughshod over their colleagues and subordinates. The people who exhibit fight are bad news for the company. Their aggressive style can lead to their own burnout and increase the level of stress at the workplace. I am sure you have come across an obnoxious person in a position of authority, one who possesses zero people skills but apparently is favoured by the management. Our marketing arena is full of such people with massive egos, firmly believing in the cult of self.
The opposite of the ego maniac as described above is the person who exhibits flight characteristics. Such people lose themselves in their work and can be obsessive compulsive and suffer from anxiety. They are workaholics; they work all night because the boss demands it or the client needs something at the eleventh hour. Again, like the fight personality, the management might interpret this person’s success as a good sign but these traits are actually warning signs that there is a serious risk of burnout on the horizon.
The freeze personality is prone to depression and shuns interaction; they are reclusive and keep quiet. They struggle with making decisions and doubt their value. They are probably the hardest people to manage as rewards and even threats will not stir them out of their chasm.
Recently, I was introduced to the word co-dependent. Co-dependent means a relationship that is unhealthy and unequal, whereby a person aims to please people, bosses and colleagues out of fear of rejection. There are similarities between flight and freeze as for different reasons, both avoid conflict and have a hard time saying no; flight personalities because they find value and worth in their work and freeze personalities because they don’t want to be left out and fear social ostracism if they turn down a request from a boss or colleague. The fawn personality defers to others in decision-making and is unable to make a meaningful contribution.
Now that we have identified these personality styles or behaviours, the question is:
How can one deal with them? The fight personality is prevalent and we have unfortunately turned them into role models. Taking them off their pedestal requires honesty from their managers about the mistakes they make. The first step is to focus on the long run or the ‘infinite game’ as Sinek calls it. When you focus on the long-term, you don’t feel pressured and nor do you pressure others to achieve results no matter at what cost. Another aspect that needs to go is favouritism; the fight personality thrives on a sycophantic culture and a ‘yes man’ mentality. Leaders need to be wary of people who agree with them all the time. Dealing with flight, freeze and fawn personalities requires a less confrontational approach. Their issues are deep-seated. Modern psychology tracks these traits as arising from traumatic childhood experiences and they can be in the form of verbal and emotional abuse and not necessarily physical or sexual in nature.
The key to creativity is doing stuff in spite of being afraid to and the four trauma responses are basically based in fear. In Pakistan, we feel that risk avoidance is a local problem; yet, I remember reading a Forrester Report a few years ago on the future of digital marketing, where someone in a top management position had this to say about his junior colleagues. “We want our brand managers to take risks; it’s not likely that any mistake they make would bankrupt the company.” To my surprise, this quote was from an employee of Procter and Gamble US – the world’s number one advertiser.
Fear is not local, fear is universal, because of childhood trauma and a culture that promotes toxicity and CYA (cover your ass). For too long, corporations have focused on everything else but the people they employ and the top management and HR are to blame. If we want creativity, we need to drastically restructure our organisations, empower employees and liberate them so that they can give their best, be their best and live their best. This requires embracing trust and patience and the freedom to make mistakes in order to learn.
Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan. firstname.lastname@example.org