Overcoming Fear of Creativity in HR

One of the recurring themes that comes up time and time again in conversations I have with people at work, at conferences, and online is, “How can we be more creative in our work?” The ability to solve problems, and add value through new ways of working is always in demand, yet converting that demand into results can be tough. This is perhaps understandable when you consider that when researching shame and vulnerability, Dr Brene Brown and her team interviewed 13,000 people, over 11,000 of whom can recall a time in school that was so shaming it forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners – 50% of those recollections related to art and creativity.

Why Isn’t Creativity More Common at Work?

Closer to home, when Joe Gerstandt and I facilitated a workshop on creativity for over 100 HR professionals At Illinois SHRM in 2014, the audience agreed that more creativity at work and creativity in HR was needed. When we asked the audience why this wasn’t currently happening, here’s what they told us:

  • We’re too busy.
  • It’s too risky.
  • We’re not encouraged.
  • We work in a coercive, conformist culture.
  • There’s a gap between what we say and what we do.
  • Creativity is perceived to be inefficient.

Four Steps to Overcoming Fear of Creativity in HR

In addition to being a facilitator and HR consultant, I’m also an artist, and as I continue to develop all aspects of my work, I’ve discovered lot of crossovers between my work as a consultant and my work as an artist. Here are a few practical steps to overcome the doubts and uncertainties around creativity expressed by HR professionals, and get more comfortable with understanding and applying the creative process.

#1 – Overcome Fear

Creativity in HR, Doug Shaw - Overcome Fear

When beginning to apply the creative process to your work, start small, play around with something you can afford to get wrong. This will help overcome that feeling of ‘too risky’ that Joe and I heard about while working in Illinois.

When I consider overcoming fear from an artistic point of view, I see trying something small as a chance to relax, and to sketch myself into existence. As I begin the process I keep in mind that these early stages of my work will likely end up in the bin, not gracing the walls of some imaginary art gallery. That takes some of the pressure off.

We often get hung up on believing our work is not good enough, and yet most of the time, we are not here to create masterpieces, we are here to stretch our creative muscles. When you begin to think similarly about your work, you can begin to relax a little and let your ideas flow more easily.

#2 – Ebb and Flow

Creativity in HR, Doug Shaw - ebb-and-flow

Creativity isn’t something you just switch on and off, it ebbs and flows according to the environment and attitude around you. What are the levers and dials you need to be aware of and able to adjust in your organisation?

Often, when dealing with the challenge to achieve more with less, we feel restricted, and this tightens up our thinking, and we struggle to be creative. Yet very often, creativity is borne of constraint – we’ve all heard the saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.

As Austin Kleon writes in Steal Like An Artist, his excellent book about creativity, ‘Creativity is subtraction – Choose what to leave out’. From an artistic perspective, I love this quote from Kit White in 101 Things to learn in Art School. ‘Drawing is about mark making – Try to use only the marks you need’. As well as using scarcity to your advantage, it’s also really helpful to try and suspend judgement when applying the creative process to work. Nothing kills people’s ability to be creative more effectively than a rush to judgement; remember that when you’re trying to encourage creativity in yourself and others.

#3 – Show Your Work

Creativity in HR, Doug Shaw - show-your-work

We all know lots of smart people, and with increasing access to technology, reaching out to them is easier than ever before. Getting comfortable with showing your work to people as you develop it, can be a great way to strengthen what you’re doing. The feedback you receive may be as simple as encouragement that you’re on a good track, and it could also include suggestions on how to modify your thinking. I often work with clients, cocreating projects and ideas for improvement. Through showing our work to each other as we go, we’ve learned that often, we’re better together. You’re good at what you do – and with a good network around you too, you can be even better too. 

#4 – Be Adaptive

Creativity in HR, Doug Shaw - be-adaptive

Henri Matisse is one of my favourite artists. In his later years he developed his cutout technique, whereby he and his team created often vast pieces of work, comprised of many smaller brightly coloured paper cutout elements. As they worked, Matisse was able to guide his team in placing and rearranging the pieces until the desired effect was achieved. Beautiful, simple and adaptive.

Imagine how much more difficult production of these pieces of work would have been if Matisse and his team painted straight onto canvas. Each time they needed to reposition something, they’d have to start again. This would take extra time and prove costly, so the likelihood is they would have pressed on with what they had and reached a less satisfactory conclusion.

Embedding Creative Practice in Your Work

What’s this got to do with your work? The next time you need to plan a project, try breaking the challenge down into all its component parts – and write each task element on a separate post it note. Once you’ve done that – arrange all the notes on a large piece of paper and ask yourself a few questions:

  • What happens when we play with the running order?
  • What happens when we add things, and remove things?
  • Which activities can be completed in sequence (one after the other) and which can be completed in parallel (simultaneously)?
  • Do we have the resources we need to deliver?
  • What is on the critical path and what isn’t?

As you move through the planning process, you can easily update and amend your plan, playing with it and iterating as you go. Using this simple, creative method, you can plan in a way that is efficient and responsive, all thanks to the artistic genius of Henri Matisse!

The next time you need to apply some creativity to your work, just try these four simple processes and see how easy, effective and enjoyable it can be.

Why Isn’t Creativity More Common at Work?
¿Por qué la creatividad no es más común en el trabajo?
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Doug Shaw

Doug Shaw is a leadership and HR consultant, facilitator and artist. He founded the UK based consultancy practice What Goes Around in 2009, through which he helps people understand and apply the creative process to their work. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Reader Interactions


  1. Mark says

    Great article, thanks! Adapt these suggestions to the position level that you are seeking. These are not all good for Senior positions and upper middle management. Have multiple copies of your resume. One or two copies is usually not enough. Be sure to have prepared questions. There is nothing worse then to ask a candidate why my company, why my job and for the interviewer to hear silence. Be early. On time is not good enough



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