How to draw out all the talents

Change may bring fear and uncertainty, but, says Jackie Townsend, firms can find ways to make it stimulating too
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The Independent Online
It is estimated that 25 per cent of us enjoy our work. Three- quarters of us do not enjoy how we spend most of our days. Small wonder, then, that the work-place is often a place of conflict and dissatisfaction. Heated discussions in the loo, over-long lunch breaks, late arrival in the morning, careless mistakes caused by overwork or boredom, or both, all imply frustration and a lack of enjoyment.

The current climate is one of change, in business as in every other level of society: change in the ways in which people relate to one another, change in political structures, change in the environment, change in the structures of communication and the dissemination of knowledge and information. And these are all happening in a fairly intense manner; witness the activity of our new government.

I believe that human beings are innately creative. Every day we create ourselves, our lives and everything in them. We put things in, take things out, rearrange the pieces. Occasionally we have new thoughts and new ideas and decide whether to use them or discard them. We do this mostly in a fairly unconscious way; that is, most of what we do comes from habit. We brush our teeth in the same way; we clean the bath in the same way; we put our clothes on in the same way - right sock, then left sock. Is it before or after underwear? Probably if I asked you, you wouldn't be able to tell me which sock goes on first, yet you do it every day. I teach self-awareness, in and out of the work-place, and I have to think hard about which sock goes on first, but I am pretty sure that I do it the same way every time. Whether I sit down or bend over, which muscles are flexing and contracting, I do not know, but I am sure the routine will be the same. For most of us, it is a case of we tried it this way, once upon a time, and it worked quite well - the sock went on the foot - and so we carried on doing it that way. It became a habit.

Habit is death to creativity, because it is mindless and unconscious. When you put on your socks or clean the bath it is highly unlikely that your mind is actively and totally engaged in that activity. You are presumably aware of what you are doing, but another part of your mind is likely to be thinking about something else entirely, and that is probably pretty unconscious too. Try it. You will find that, in any activity, if you keep your mind completely focused on what you are doing, your whole body will feel different. It is quite a challenge.

However, I also believe that this creativity, or ability to be creative, is potentially immensely satisfying and rewarding. And this is relevant to this climate of intense change that we are experiencing and that will certainly continue.

Some people thrive on change and embrace it; others hold on ever more tightly to the known and familiar, perhaps forgetting that the present was previously unknown and unfamiliar. The same can be said of companies. Every company was, in its infancy, new and exciting, the result of someone's enthusiasm and idea or opportunity. Change was an expected part of growth and was a challenge. No change would have been a disappointment. So the perspective a company takes on internal and external changes is also relevant.

Change itself is just a catalyst. It is something which causes something else to happen and part of that is the choices that are faced as a result of the change. So change management is really about managing the results of a change and the choices that need to be made. But the problem is that change of any kind often induces a feeling of fear. When people are afraid and feel threatened they become defensive. This produces separation when there could be communication. It also kills creativity, spontaneity and flexibility, all of which are essential for a healthy business.

So, on the one hand we have a lack of enjoyment at work, a great deal of discontinuous change, also habit and fear, and on the other we have the creative potential of every person. I believe that the companies that will survive and flourish in these times are those that are able to tap into that creative potential and allow a process of growth to happen.

Some years ago I spent time researching at a large insurance company. Apart from inefficiency and zero levels of communication, what struck me most was what was happening to the staff. The company had gone to some lengths to provide facilities, but the lack of imagination and thought meant that the total effect of the building, the organisation of work and the facilities such as the canteen, was to drain the energy of everyone. The fear of imminent redundancy was clearly visible on the faces of the male employees especially. As people came to work in the morning I could see them switch off as they crossed the threshold. These were 600 people turning into zombies to come to work. As they walked out at the end of the day they became themselves again. I could not believe that a company could function at such a low level of vitality.

We are a very left-brain oriented society. The route to creativity is through the right part of the brain, where we find qualities such as feeling, intuition, imagination. People in the work-place can be encouraged to use both halves of the brain. When you have logic and intuition working together problem-solving becomes an exercise in creativity and even enjoyable.

Habit does not like change but imagination loves it. There is a sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes from using both halves of ourselves and in this way it is possible to turn the figures around so that 75 per cent of us enjoy work, and if you have people enjoying themselves at work, relishing the challenges that change brings, making choices that contribute to personal growth as well as the growth of the company, and using logic and intuition in projects and problem-solving, then companies and the people in them can flourish and prosper, and this is surely the objective. True, you might need to learn to live with a little chaos here and there, which the time and motion people will not like, but occasional doses of controlled chaos can be illuminating and even exciting and can break down ingrained and deadening habits very quickly.

We need to learn to use our creativity in all the choices that we make. The work-place is often neglected in this area. Business is, in a way, always on the knife-edge of society because it is always having to survive. But the business world is also ideally placed to play a leading role, in a constructive and enlightening way, as we all, as a society, move through the current changes. All it takes is a change of perspective, a little bit of courage and, most of all, the willingness to use the resources that are already there - the work-force of every companyn

Jackie Townsend is a director of Greystone International, which aims to release creativity in the work-place.