Looking at the head offices of a certain Sydney toy company, you might think it's a paradise for highly creative people - bold colours, fun elements, lots of unique concepts. There's a giant beanstalk in the foyer, with a cabin for meetings where it reaches the first floor; a replica old-fashioned plane for more meetings/study. They're considered innovative and groundbreaking, and their toy concept is based on fun (obviously). The workplace they've created here reflects that, deliberately. 'Ordinary? No thanks. Expect the funexpected.' Their motto for their products is also the motto for their workplace:
'[We're] all about the Superhappy – the eyes wide, the screech and rip-it-open, the OMG I can’t believe it, the WOW! This doesn’t stop with our groundbreaking toys, it’s lived and breathed every day in our offices.'i
And although it's a really nice concept for an organisation to take such pains to create an environment where their employees can be at their best - a great concept, in fact - I think this copmany has actually missed the point with these elements. This is my take on what I've seen about their Sydney HQ, based on what highly creative people really need.
Effects of office environment and culture
First, does the office environment need to reflect what the toys are? It might seem an obvious connection, but I don't think it is. The creators of a product don't have to be working with an 'eyes-wide, ... screech and rip-it-open, ... WOW!' process in order to produce a concept that delivers those things. It would also be a very draining way to work. And if everyone's expected to show that spirit in order to prove that they're really creative and dedicated to the company's vision, what sort of situation is that going to create? Consider these quotes from their website about company values:
We keep our energy up so there’s a great buzz around the place all the time – helping to foster great ideas and ensuring strong productivity.
We’re a family who is Outrageously playful, with Wild imagination.
We know there is no ‘I’ in team and are committed to hitting team goals way out of the park.
And although they also say that 'we are non-judgmental, value diversity of thinking and the benefits this brings, and are open to all wow ideas,' that sentence begins with: 'We elicit infectious enthusiasm'. This contradicts the rest of the sentence. The message of their company values to me is clearly that their people are expected to have a certain approach and persona.
While I love the really clear goals and values they've established, that they're all about living what they profess to do, these quotes concern me. What I feel is a pressure to be 'infectiously enthusiastic', in an outward, evident way; always on fire and performing so others can see your enthusiasm and playfulness; making sure you demonstrate, through your interactions and participation in company activities, that you're 'outrageously playful', and always being high-energy. It's exhausting just to think about! And while there are probably some who really do thrive in an environment like that, it means one of two things.
Either the company's going to attract and keep only that sort of person (the kind who thrive in that environment) - always on show, high-energy, evidently playful, etc. - and that's going to reduce the range of creative output (because there's only that type of person working there), or they're going to have a team of people among whom are those trying desperately to keep up this appearance. They're going to be drained, creatively hampered (because they don't actually have the right conditions for creativity - see below - too much of their energy's going on this appearance, and they're trying to be creative in the way that's expected), and will likely burn out quickly. They might also feel like they're not as creative as they should be, even though they probably are, and might end up feeling very discouraged about their career potential.
What creativity is and isn't, and what really drives it
One misconception is that creativity thrives in places with lots of people - 'collaboration' - and lots of visual stimuli. That we need stimuli constantly around in order to have creative ideas and be productive with them.
This isn't actually true. Creativity comes from input that the brain receives over time - little pieces, coming in little by little. Much of it isn't conscious. Our brains connect these pieces, and eventually, things click into place and we see something clearly or feel inspiration which illuminates these connections. It's a process which happens naturally; it's not forced, and it doesn't come from deliberately-placed stimuli.
In fact, some of the most creative people have Highly Sensitive temperaments. Being aware of subtleties and processing them deeply means that we notice a lot, and gain many insights from how our systems process that information. Being highly aware is a key aspect of creativity. Here's what Scott Barry Kaufmann and Carolyn Gregoire have to say about it:
'People who are adept in the observation aspect of creativity... tend to be higher in cognitive flexibility, which allows them to move fluidly between different modes of thought and to consider multiple approaches and solutions to a problem. There are two reasons that observation is an important driver of creativity. First, it's strongly related to the openness to experiences personality domain, as both are characterized by a drive for novelty and exploration. And more than other mindfulness skills, observation is associated with the ability to take note of the contents of our internal and external landscape.' (Wired to Create, 2016, p. 120)
Dutch psychologist Matthijs Baas and colleagues investigated how four key mindfulness skills predict creativity. Of these, only observation 'was consistently linked with heightened creativity. Baas' team concludes... "To be creative, you need to have, or be trained in, the ability to carefully observe, notice, or attend to phenomena that pass your mind's eye"' (Wired to Create, ibid.).
This is why Highly Sensitive people are perfectly set up for heightened creativity. But that insight is coming all the time. It doesn't need - and is, in fact, harmed by - intense or constant stimuli. We are always aware, always noticing; what seems unremarkable to someone else is experienced quite differently by a High Sensory person. We're seeing potential and interest in things no one else does - but it's happening naturally.
Here's another quotation from Wired to Create to explain:
'To highly sensitive people, as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck suggested, the world may appear to be more colourful, dramatic, tragic, and beautiful. Sensitive people often pick up on the little things in the environment that others miss, see patterns where others see randomness, and find meaning and metaphor in the minutiae of everyday life.... If we think of creativity as "joining the dots" in some way, then sensitive people experience a world in which there are both more dots and more opportunities for connection' between them. (pp. 125-6)
So, coming back to the toy company: their visually stimulating environment, meant to enhance creativity, in fact misses the point in two ways:
1. Highly creative people are going to pick up inspiration from everywhere. Adding these 'wow' elements looks impressive, but is it really needed? It seems to me that it would, in fact, make the connections described above harder, because it's too 'loud' and busy, covering the actual thought process that leads to creative inspiration.
2. People who are this aware are taking in so much and processing it so deeply that they need less environmental stimuli, not more. If they're taking in from everyday life so much more than a less-responsive person, anything extra becomes potentially detrimental to their ability to process clearly.
What highly creative people really need is the right environment to process all their incoming information - not information itself (which we've seen that they get anyway). So, what does the 'right environment' look like? I don't have all the answers to that, but here are some:
That's my take on the at-first-glance 'wow & amazing' Sydney HQ of this creative company. I hope it's given you some points for reflection about your ideas around creativity and what creative people need at work in order to.... be creative.
If you'd like me to come and evaluate your workplace for elements such as these, with the perspective of a Highly Sensitive person, let's talk! You can send me a message here. I specialise in assessing the environment and processes in workplaces according to how well they support those with High Sensory Intelligence to thrive. You'll end up with targeted insights and guidance for creating the right conditions to get the most from their valuable gifts.
Tamara - Sensitive Thrive is my consulting business. I believe that the world needs Highly Sensitive people who are flourishing. We need their hope, insight, wisdom, and awareness of beauty and possibility. My vision is to help create a culture where this temperament is known, understood and valued; where organisations seek Highly Sensitive people to work for them, because they know what they can do. Where HS people feel like they fit in their workplaces, because those workplaces also fit them. A world where HS people belong, thrive, and flourish, and the world is better for it.