HR Roundtable: How Do You Develop Creativity in HR?

There was a definite buzz for the September HR Roundtable in Cincinnati because the topic was a bit out of the “norm.” Everyone was gathering to discuss “Creativity in HR.”

HR isn’t typically viewed as being creative, so it was interesting to take a step outside the boundaries of traditional thought to see what people would have to share.

The small groups started with the following questions to spark discussion:

  1. Why is creativity squelched at work?
  2. Why is it difficult to be creative in HR?
  3. How can we foster creativity in ourselves and others?

The buzz only increased as the small groups took to their discussions. It was fascinating to hear what was being shared. Here’s what they had to say.

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Why is creativity squelched at work?

  • Old mindsets — This is the classic “we’ve always done things this way” defense. It is astonishing to see how entrenched people can become in their approaches to their work. People want to move ahead while taking this position at the same time. There may be many reasons for this position, but in the end it results in stagnation and the limitation of ideas.
  • It takes time — The assumption here is that creativity is a waste of time. People won’t say that, but it’s implied. We tend to think that creativity will impede productivity and not enhance it. It may do that, but how do you know unless you try new approaches?
  • We need to focus on what matters — Is it any wonder that employees say they’re disgruntled and frustrated in today’s workplace? Who determines this? This seems extremely narrow and biased. However, it is a driver of organizations because we keep fostering the myth that if we control people, they’ll work on “important” things.
  • Fear of change — One response that resonated with all of the attendees was this: “If you’re not careful, creativity could lead to change!” After the nervous laughter passed, the reality of this statement sank in. People say they are great with change when that is just not the case. Change is hard and if people think that companies fall into the change for change sake mantra, fear only rises and makes people anxious because there is a lack of clarity and direction.
  • It’s hard to measure — More and more you see the reality of measurement and data being the driver of cultures and efforts. What people are missing is that data happens AFTER something occurs. There is no doubt that data and trends are important and should be reviewed, analyzed and acted upon. However, if data alone is what is driving the thought leaders of your company, then creativity will never exist if it is not deemed quantifiable.

Why is it difficult to be creative in HR?

  • Perceived lack of support — HR practitioners have the lowest self-esteem of any profession within an organization. At times, this is warranted dependent upon how the company views the value of HR. More often than not, it’s the HR people who express the “woe is me” approach. This needs to cease for so many reasons! HR is expected to be a business partner who contributes. If you are a contributor, then your support will only increase.
  • HR is too strict — It’s hard to be creative when everything, and everyone, needs to fit into tightly defined rules, regulations and systems. When HR takes the approach that is narrow and one-sided, creativity won’t exist because it will automatically fall outside the recognized parameters.
  • We think confidential information is more important — HR people act like spies at times because they are holders of a vast amount of confidential information. If you are someone who relishes living in the shadows, you’re just missing out on the majority of what is really going on with employees and your role. Don’t let this aspect of your job handcuff you. Take a look at each situation you work on and determine what is/isn’t confidential. The rest of what you can do will naturally flow around them.
  • We’re scared to be creative — As noted before that people are afraid of change, this seems to be prevalent in HR folks. I’ve heard so many of my peers throw up a systems first approach when it comes to Human Resources. We lose sight of the creativity that resides in all of the people we work with, including ourselves. It may feel safer to take this approach, but the rest of the organization wants to hear from you and your ideas. They don’t want you to sit back.
  • Misconceptions about the law — It’s amazing how many times HR practitioners will throw up the “we can’t, it’s not legal” defense with little to no basis. Few HR people have a firm grasp on the legal aspects of their jobs. Being a quasi-paralegal is definitely within the scope of HR people, but you need to take the time to really know what you’re talking about. Don’t be cavalier with the law. Understand it and use it when you are accurate. If that halts some creative efforts, then that’s fine. Just don’t use it as an excuse to not try to be creative.
  • Creativity isn’t seen as strategic — In HR’s endless struggle to be viewed as strategic, we think we need to play the part of others who think they’re strategic. The reality is that you can be extremely strategic in creative ways. The key is to understand that strategy is a broad-based approach to how things are done versus a practice of steps and tasks. Don’t believe this myth. It just isn’t based on anything tangible.
  • We get innovation and creativity mixed up — Semantics get in the way on this topic. There are countless books and blogs about innovation, and people think it’s a vastly different effort than creativity. People misconstrue creativity as flip charts, colored markers, abstract drawings, etc. The idea that an artistic approach to HR is frivolous and too soft-sided is just a missed opportunity to think from more a landscape viewpoint. Don’t get hung up on words that just limit you from acting at all.

How can we foster creativity in ourselves and others?

  • Give people permission — Too often we expect people to be creative and bring their ideas to the table, but we never let them know it’s okay to do that first. Give people the latitude and ability to be creative, and they’ll do it. People want to be creative in their jobs. However, they will share that the company doesn’t want that. They just want them to do their work. Lift this first barrier and see what happens!
  • Ask questions — Most company cultures are directive driven. People bark this order or that and want people to get things done. If you’re approach is to enter into situations and ask questions first, you’re laying the groundwork for people to share. When they share, you’re unlocking their creativity without them even recognizing it. HR people who are inquisitive learn more than those who enforce behavior through compliance.
  • Support ideas — People tend to jump on ideas if they run counter to how things are moving. Take a different approach yourself and listen to the ideas given. Seek context to see what people are trying to express. Remember that it only takes a person one time to be jumped when you didn’t care for their idea to shut down for good.
  • Encourage solutions as well as ideas — People like ground rules. When they have structure and parameters to work within, people will perform. So, instead of having countless brainstorming sessions, have a solutions session. Give people the framework to come to conclusions that have movement instead of shotgun sessions filled with Post-It notes, dots and flow charts. People like direction so give them the forum to make that happen.
  • Allow individuality — Create common areas in your offices where people can go and create. Give them time in their schedule to be innovative and not feel that they’re being watched. Let people express themselves in their workspace and also put a twist on regular events to make them fresh. You can take this in a myriad of ways. You just need to make the first step happen.
  • HR should be the model — This is the biggest leap needed in order for creativity to be “OK” within the company culture. HR should own this and not try to encapsulate and control it. Be the edgy, colorful, creative person who brings the essential human component to all that you do. It can be a weekly meeting which has become mundane, or it can be the annual strategic planning session. HR needs to bring a fresh dose of life to all it does.

People left this roundtable energized and a bit askew, which made it successful. They now had something to use and build on thinking about their work differently. We’ll see what happens!

Steve Browne

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at sbrowne@larosas.com, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.