We should encourage creativity in our frontline coworkers.

This, from David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity. In his Harvard Business Review article, David supports this idea with new research from the Journal of Applied Psychology. The study found that “service creativity,” or the creativity of frontline service employees, “directly [affects] customer service ratings.”

The problem in today’s workforce is that most of the time, frontline coworkers aren’t given the freedom to be creative. Here are two reasons I think this is true:

  1. Perhaps it’s due to the task-oriented nature of their work? This may feed the idea that there is no need for creativity in their roles.
  2. The other explanation is that expectations of senior level management require work be accomplished as quickly as possible. Creativity takes time. An environment that promotes strict quotas or low call times doesn’t feed creativity.

Burkus points to Zappos as an exemplar of how service creativity actually improves business.

“Zappos is one of the few call centers that measures average call time but doesn’t reward employees with the lowest averages. Instead, they praise the employees who set length records. That’s important given that creative ideas often take time to develop and that productivity and creativity are often at odds with one another.”

Zappos is well known for embracing Holacracy. While many dispute Holacracy’s effectiveness as a business model, one of its main components is that each member of the team determines the best way to accomplish his or her clearly defined roles. There are endless stories about how Zappos call representatives (a role that in most organizations is tedious and uninspiring) use creativity to go above and beyond.

A woman whose husband died called to return a pair of shoes she bought for him. The Zappos representative sent her flowers the next day. A man called looking for a pair of shoes that Zappos’ website showed was out of stock. That Zappos representative personally visited a brick and mortar retailer to buy the shoes and hand-deliver them to the customer.

Employees didn’t have to ask permission to do these things. They just did it. Stories like this get repeated over and over by employees (and bloggers). They make organizations great and WOW customers.

How can leaders help create an environment like this? Approachability doesn’t hurt. Here’s Burkus:

“Managers can play a key role in facilitating the creativity of front-line staff by expressing confidence in their service employees and seeking out employees’ opinions on resolving customer issues or providing service.”

Nothing makes you more approachable than seeking out your coworker’s thoughts and opinions. You show them their views are valuable to you and the organization. The more you invite creative thinking, the more coworkers will embrace it on their own.

Here are 4 ideas to ramp up creativity with your frontline employees:

  1. Be more approachableApproachable leaders don’t just improve relationships with coworkers, they improve other business results like creativity, innovation, and in this case, customer service.
  2. Ask employees for suggestions. Do you have an event coming up? Maybe a production or customer issue? As leaders we tend to go into “fix it” mode on our own. Bring the team in on it! Not only does it help you out, it drives creativity and teamwork.
  3. Loosen up the reigns. If an employee presents you with a solution to a problem that directly relates to their role in the company and it’ll work, let them run with it! Not everything has to be done one way, or your way.
  4. Slow down a little bit. Zappos’ thought process on embracing longer conversations with customers produces results that not only increase customer commitment and satisfaction, but also increase employees’ creative thinking, problem solving, and independence. I can only imagine how things might change if leaders took the same approach with their coworkers.

How do you encourage employees to be creative? Could you be doing better or do you not see the need for it? Can you think of any examples of leaders who helped spur your creativity? Let us know!

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