How Great Leaders Overcome Six Common Barriers That Prevent Their Teams from Thinking outside the Box

SGEi • September 11, 2020

We’ve all heard the phrase “think outside the box.” It is, of course, an idiom that means to think differently, unconventionally, or in a new or innovative way. Author Mitch Ditkoff came up with the idea that because a box has six sides, there are six reasons that people cannot think creatively (thus staying inside the box) in an organization: fear, powerlessness, organizational beliefs, isolation, brain dominance, and tunnel vision.

Fear
Management guru, Peter Drucker, famously said, “Fear is the number one obstacle for innovation.” When people are afraid, they are unable and unwilling to think creatively. Common fears among those on your team may include:
• Your reactions to their choices, decisions, or behaviors
• They may fear losing their job
• Standing out among their peers in a negative light
• Being wrong and judged

These fears are real in many organizations, and they serve as the most significant reasons why people do not think differently. As a leader, it is your job to remove and reduce these fears by acknowledging and speaking honestly and openly about them. You must also let people know that it’s okay to fail. As leaders, we must set the example for not being influenced by any of these fears.

Powerlessness
People are often conditioned to think they are powerless to do anything when an obstacle gets in the way. When people feel they have no ability to make a difference or create change, they are not going to make an effort to get outside of the box—they would rather just give up. If an employee feels that their ideas do not matter, they will not be willing to engage in making change or improvements.

You must continually ask your team for their input. And, when your team gives feedback, follow up with them on their idea and why (or why not) something might be done with it. The more you engage with people, inviting them to share their thoughts and input, they’ll feel empowered.

Organizational Beliefs
Sometimes, company beliefs or norms prevent people from getting out of the box. Whether true or not, some beliefs may make people disinterested in trying to think differently. Many creative ideas exist inside of a company. However, many of them do not see the light of day due to some beliefs that often exist, which usually sounds like, “We can’t do anything unless everyone is on board,” or, “What made us successful in the past will make us successful in the future.” Don’t let what has been done in the past dictate what you can do in the future. Remember, the most damaging phrase in our culture is, “It has always been done that way.”

Staying engaged with your team gives you awareness of and the ability to talk about any beliefs that may exist that keep people inside of their boxes. By acknowledging and talking through these beliefs, you can help them feel differently, which ultimately helps them think differently.

Isolation
To get outside of the box, people need to connect, talk, and brainstorm ideas. A lot of early research on creativity had emphasized the importance of isolation and reflection to find an aha moment. However, we now know that social interactivity and connectivity create the initial spark, which more up-to-date research has reinforced. When people do not have an opportunity to interact often with others, they are less likely to think of ways to get outside of the box.

As leaders, you must create opportunities for your people to connect, talk, and share ideas regularly. As the workforce becomes more remote and flexible, a leader must consider ways to get the team together and create opportunities to talk. Utilizing technology will be essential in the future.

Brain Dominance
We are either left or right-brain dominant. Some research suggests it may have to do with which hand is most dominant. If you are right-handed, which most people are, you may be more left-brain dominant. The left side of the brain is connected to logical or rational thinking, and it is often required and even preferred in business and management. Whereas the right side of the brain is associated with being intuitive and creative, and it is often thought of as the more under-utilized part of the brain.

We must use our whole brain, which means exercising or utilizing the side of the brain (usually the right side) that is less dominant. When we are too reliant on logical thinking, it is more challenging to get outside of the box. When we become too left-side oriented, we tend to get quickly disinterested and frustrated with these types of challenges.

Get to know your team members individually. Challenge your left-brained, logical thinkers’ creativity by giving them right-brained activities such as puzzles, brain games, and even writing their signature upside down or backward. These activities can reprogram their brains to become more creative.

Tunnel Vision
When people are only able to see the work, processes, information, or viewpoint right in front of them, they will not be able to get outside of the box. People need to see the big picture to truly shift beyond their current point of view. Continually sharing your vision for any change initiative is extremely important. It will help people begin to shift their perspectives.

As a leader, you must keep talking about the mission, purpose, or vision for the organization. Keeping them focused on something beyond their day-to-day roles and routines is essential to get outside of the box. Engage, and invite your teams to try new things, and they will.

You can foster creativity among your team and your organization’s culture, just take the time to eliminate what keeps your team inside the box. Thanks for reading, and please reach out to us if you’d like more ideas or insights about how you can foster creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking.

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