What Are We Paying You For?

Think about your last business meeting. What was your mental state in the meeting? Excitement? Anger? Boredom?

If the goal of the meeting was to spark creativity, then hopefully you were bored in that meeting. Research published a few years ago (and described in Harvard Business Review) found that engaging in boring tasks led to more creativity in subsequent tasks. The more boring and passive the task, the better for creativity. As summarized in HBR:

“Taken together, these studies suggest that the boredom so commonly felt at work could actually be leveraged to help us get our work done better… or at least get work that requires creativity done better. When we need to dream up new projects or programs (divergent thinking), perhaps we should start by spending some focused time on humdrum activities such as answering emails, making copies, or entering data. Afterward … we may be better able to think up more (and more creative) possibilities to explore. Likewise, if we need to closely examine a problem and produce a concise, effective solution (convergent thinking), perhaps we should schedule that task after a particularly lifeless staff meeting. By engaging in uninteresting activities before problem-solving ones, we may be able to elicit the type of thinking we need to find creative solutions.”

Balance is needed, however, between the creative benefits of boredom and the benefits of entering a state of flow. When you’re in a state of flow, as characterized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, time slows down, clarity speeds up, concentration is complete, and work is completed effortlessly and easily. Your creativity is at its peak. And yet, one of Csikszentmihalyi’s most famous quotations on flow is this:

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

This is not an either/or scenario, but a continuous spectrum – allowing the space for boredom to free the mind for creativity, and enter into a state of flow. To do so, however, people need the opportunity to disconnect, to recharge. In a global research study to define the factors of a positive employee experience and establish the drivers of that positive experience, work-life balance emerged as one of six clear drivers. But there was a twist. Work-life balance wasn’t defined merely in terms of a work schedule flexible enough for employees to meet family/personal responsibilities (though 79% report a more positive employee experience when this is true), but also in terms of the ability to disconnect and recharge when not at work.

Here are three ways to help foster an environment conducive to creativity.

  1. Tolerate (even encourage) periodic boredom – Our role as managers and leaders isn’t to ensure a job that is always heart-pounding excitement, but to encourage and enable our people to develop their own skills and abilities to the benefit of the company and the customer. One example is the 15-year-old who is now a 17-year-old multimillionaire after developing his first app game in school while bored.
  2. Make room for the mundane at every level – Many tasks can (and should) be automated. Yet leaving room for mundane tasks that need to get done creates the mental space for people do develop creative ideas. The brain needs a break. Instead of trying to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of every minute of compensated time, use people’s time more wisely to balance intense work and mundane tasks that may leave room for boredom – and creativity.
  3. Don’t interrupt – When people do enter into the state of flow, leave them alone! When it’s obvious someone is diligently cranking away, don’t tap them on the shoulder to ask, “Do you mind if I interrupt with a quick question? It’ll only take a minute!” That minute may cost countless hours of creativity and productivity.

What are we paying people for? Perhaps total productivity isn’t the answer, but a balance of boredom, daydreaming, inspiration, creativity and, ultimately, innovation.

As Globoforce’s Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting, Derek Irvine is an internationally minded management professional with over 20 years of experience helping global companies set a higher ambition for global strategic employee recognition, leading workshops, strategy meetings and industry sessions around the world. He is the co-author of “The Power of Thanks” and his articles on fostering and managing a culture of appreciation through strategic recognition have been published in Businessweek, Workspan and HR Management. Derek splits his time between Dublin and Boston. Follow Derek on Twitter at @DerekIrvine.

This post originally appeared on Compensation Cafe
Author: Derek Irvine