Creativity and the HR department

If you walk the streets of some towns, you can almost always pick the people who work for certain employers. It may be my weird sense of humour, but each time I see one of these people, I imagine the Human Resource officers squeezing the new hire into a machine that plunks the person into a mould and then squeezes and scrapes away the parts that don’t fit. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a good organizational match between employee and company is wrong. What I am saying is that when there is too much “fit,” there isn’t enough diversity to foster creativity. And creativity, as we all know, is a driving force in business survival and superiority.

But how do we recognize a creative person? Some people say to find a creative person, look in the mirror. To an extent, every person is creative – we do find a creative person when we see our image in the mirror. But is that sort of creativity the kind that makes new discoveries and makes a huge difference in the world?

World-changers – these are people who Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed and studied over a five year period. His book, Creativity, gives the results of this study. Specifically, Csikszentmihalyi states that creative people have one trait that most makes them different from other individuals – complexity. But Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t leave this term undefined. Not surprisingly, his definition of complexity backs up years of previous research into creativity. In a nutshell, exceptionally creative people:

  • are smart but they are also “naive,” sometimes asking what other people think are dumb questions;
  • are often introverted in that they push people aside to retreat into their quiet state but they can also be somewhat manic in personality, displaying a higher degree of both introversion and extroversion;
  • are humble in that they will admit what they don’t know as well as what they need to improve; however, they are also arrogant when they believe they’ve accomplished something superior;
  • tend to be more androgynous than others: women are more assertive and men are less masculine; and
  • are both conservative and rebellious at the same time.

You might ask, “So what? That doesn’t apply to my human resources department. I’d still hire someone with those behaviours!”

My answer is a question: As an HR manager, which person out of the three below would you most likely hire?

Applicant A

  • female;
  • confident;
  • adeptly turned a negative to a positive when asked what she needed to improve;
  • listed several accomplishments that showed her ability to work with others, as well as highlighting her skills and abilities when asked about her strengths and achievements;
  • didn’t seem either extroverted or introverted;
  • asked intelligent questions about the position;
  • graduate of top tier university with highest standing; and
  • good recommendations.

Applicant B

  • male;
  • appeared somewhat introverted;
  • when asked about strengths and achievements stated that he didn’t think he had done anything that was particularly remarkable and that he had a lot to learn;
  • when asked what he needed to improve, instead of turning a negative to a positive, he openly admitted what needed improvement;
  • seemed to find some things humorous that you didn’t think were particularly amusing;
  • asked some questions that you thought were good but also several that you thought were just plain dumb;
  • graduate of top tier university with highest standing; and
  • good recommendations.

Applicant C

  • female;
  • seems more aggressive and opinionated than other females in your organization;
  • when asked about her achievements and strengths, she seemed almost arrogant about her intellectual ability;
  • gave several areas for improvement when asked what she needed to improve;
  • sometimes smiled when a smile wasn’t appropriate; and
  • asked several “stupid” questions about the position and didn’t seem to notice that these questions weren’t appropriate;
  • graduate of top tier university with highest standing; and
  • good recommendations.

How many people would hire Applicant A? I think most Human Resources officers would. And yet, Applicant B and C hint at traits which Csikszentmihalyi says are common to highly creative and motivated individuals.

“But,” you say, “these people sound too much like troublemakers. How do we know they are going to be productive?”

The clue is that all three people had similar recommendations and marks. They all graduated from an excellent university in the top tier. That shows to a certain extent that they can finish what they start and are equally productive.

“But people have to get along with others and they sound like they couldn’t work in a team!”

My response is, “Does the tradeoff between creativity and getting along more benefit the long-term interests of the company or the short-term interests of staff and managers?”

I think most people learn that creativity and independent thought is punished right in elementary school. Study after study shows that teachers don’t like creative children in the classroom because they make it harder for them to do their job. These children ask harder questions, they don’t just accept the teacher’s answers as truth, they want to experiment instead of following the rules. Right in elementary school when we see the creative child punished more, we decide: 1) it isn’t okay to be creative; and 2) creative people are problems.

Does this carry on into business?

Sure it does.

Other research states that creative people spend more time getting ready to problem solve – they take longer to look at the problem. They also see the problem as more complex, having more layers than does the less creative person. In my experience this bugs the dickens out of non-creative people. Managers see it as a waste of time and money, and team members think the creative person is making a mountain out of a molehill. I’ve heard people tell extremely creative people, “You always make things so much more difficult than you need to!”

Creative people can be frustrating in other ways. For instance, they enjoy change. Most people, when facing chaos want to return to the known and familiar. Not so the exceptionally creative. They want to create new structures instead of returning to the old. Many managers find that irritating and don’t understand it. Again, the creative person is thought of as a troublemaker by less creative managers and coworkers.

Another irritant – creative people are more self-critical than other people. Because of this, they can tend to view criticism differently. Most people become very defensive when someone doesn’t like something they did. Because creative people are more self-critical, they are more likely to listen to the criticism with intense curiosity about what the person didn’t like. They will start asking questions which the other person interprets as defensive behaviour (because that’s how non-creative people react) instead of what is really the creative person’s way to discuss how to improve a project. The exceptionally creative really do mean it when they say, “Tell me what you don’t like – it doesn’t bother me!” That’s as long as the criticism is a reasonable, logical argument. However, if someone creative believes he/she did a good job on a project, no one is going to convince him/her otherwise! That’s when they can appear arrogant or know-it-all.

In conclusion, does the HR department more often than not pass up the very creative? Do managers rate creative people lower on performance evaluations because they are more difficult to manage? Do these managers persuade their most creative people to quit and work in a “more creative” field in order to just get them out of their hair? Do they end up driving their most innovative staff to quitting and starting their own businesses? Yes, many do. I’ve heard from people in the HR field that this happens all the time – most often, I’ve been told, to exceptionally creative women.

What does this mean for the continued success of these companies with conservative managers? Sure, maybe these organizations will survive but will they be like the Swiss watchmakers who didn’t see digital technology for what it could be – and let the Japanese take over the market? Or will they be developing innovative products like Velcro and post-it notes?

If we want to do more than survive, perhaps we should be a bit more like – they actually ask personnel companies to send over the people that the other companies rejected! And that’s something to think about.


A.J. Cropley, Fostering Creativity in the Classroom: General Principles in The Creativity Research Handbook (Volume One), Mark A. Runco (editor), Hampton Press, Inc:Cresskill, New Jersey, 1997.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Perennial:New York, New York, 1996.

H.J. Eysenck, Creativity and Personality in The Creativity Research Handbook (Volume One), Mark A. Runco (editor), Hampton Press, Inc:Cresskill, New Jersey, 1997.

Eileen S. Jay and David N. Perkins, Problem Finding: The Search for Mechanism in The Creativity Research Handbook (Volume One), Mark A. Runco (editor), Hampton Press, Inc:Cresskill, New Jersey, 1997.

Michael Michalko, Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, Ten Speed Press:Berkeley, California, 1998.

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