Fostering creativity

Author: Elisa Warner

Supporting creative differences through leadership can help a project reach its potential.

Recognizing that enthusiasm is a more powerful motivator than coercion, most managers adopt the style of a coach rather than a dictator.


While managing a team project, it’s sometimes difficult to maintain structure without alienating staff or stifling creativity.


Practice effective leadership by maintaining clear objectives while providing active interest and support of creative differences.


A project manager needs both soft and hard skills to lead effectively. Achieving the right mix of structure, creative freedom, and support will create the conditions for communication, innovation, and productivity for a team.

Researcher Teresa Amabile’s 2004 study on team perceptions of managers revealed that individuals most value the following characteristics in their project leaders: awareness of work activities; “socioemotional” support; public recognition of performance; and inquiry and utilization of subordinates’ ideas. Conversely, the study found that team members bristled at leaders who provide too much or too little interest in their activities; avoid emerging conflicts or problems; and offer unclear objectives.

Charlie Chaplin as The Great Dictator (1940)

It can be a challenge to be an involved leader without being a micromanager. The following strategies can assist in achieving the proper balance.

Communicate Objectives and Expectations

Establishing guidelines does not have to stifle creativity–even a painter is limited by his or her canvas. Providing clear project objectives and team expectations, and revisiting them on a regular basis, helps to maintain project structure.

Become Involved in the Project

By investing personal time and effort in the development process of a project, rather than directing from the outside, you can maintain involvement without micromanaging. Effectively delegate tasks by establishing the “what” and the “when,” and allowing the team to decide “how.”

It may be helpful to think of yourself as a facilitator of a self-managed group, where the objectives and goals are determined by the team as a whole. Such a system maintains structure by mutual agreement; individuals are accountable to the team rather than the manager. As the manager, your role is to simply reflect the will of the team.

Publicly Recognize Ideas and Accomplishments

Create a supportive atmosphere where performance is recognized and rewarded.

Make a special effort to give individual team members public kudos for small and large successes. This can be accomplished in a meeting or by sending a group email.

Encourage Creativity

To be creative, team members sometimes need to question a manager’s authority rather than bow to it. Encourage open discussions where all ideas are taken seriously. While a creative team may feel unstructured and even volatile at times, you can maintain productivity by encouraging controlled conflict based on creative differences of opinion, as opposed to personal and social issues. Whereas personal conflicts are a counterproductive waste of time and energy, creative conflicts are energizing and enlightening. Give your team room to “think outside of the box” and permission to respectfully disagree.

Address Conflicts Early

Office politics can quickly interfere with morale and productivity. Address potential conflicts early before they snowball into an insurmountable problem.

Be Emotionally Available

Team members have unique personalities, family responsibilities, and reactions to stress. This is easy to forget when faced with the pressure of a looming deadline. It is important to show that your interest in your team goes beyond their role in the project:

  • Accommodate flexible schedules when possible. Team members will appreciate the ability to control their work, and will be more productive in the long run.
  • Organize occasional team lunches where “shop talk” is banned.
  • Engage in “water cooler” chats with your team.
  • Be approachable regarding problems.

Steer Clear of Office Gossip

By engaging in office gossip, you threaten your credibility with the group and may place your job in peril. Any issues that you may have with an individual should be addressed in private with that person.

Use Technology to Enhance Communication with Your Team

Email and web-based technologies provide numerous benefits to managers, including:

  • The ability to unobtrusively monitor individual progress.
  • The ability to forward information and documents to multiple team members simultaneously.
  • An electronic forum for discussions.
  • A written documentation of the project’s progress.

For managers who feel uncomfortable or awkward complimenting team members verbally, email may provide a more natural means of delivering praise. However, be careful that such methods do not take the place of human interaction. The tone of an email is also important; without the softening effects of body language, concise emails can feel cold or critical to a sensitive reader. Be sure to soften your emails with polite inquiries and expressions of gratitude.


Regardless of the type of group, managers should recognize that the value of a team lies within its members. It is the leader’s job to facilitate a meaningful exchange of ideas, enabling team members to reach their highest potential – both individually and collectively. While not a specific formula for success, managers can implement these techniques according to the personalities of their team and specific project conditions.


  • Sutton, Robert I. Think You Manage Creatively? Here’s Why You’re Wrong.

Elisa Warner develops research and training programs for non-profit and educational organizations. She is the former editor-in-chief of The Educational Facility Planner.

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