Are You a Creativity Exterminator?

You May Be Suffering from the ‘Fleas in a Jar’ Syndrome.

What do fleas and creativity have in common? They will both die an excruciating slow death if they’re not actively released.

Fleas can jump over 200 times their height. That’s up to 8 inches, which is pretty freakin’ impressive all things considered — and it’s why in the 1800s, flea circuses were a very real attraction. What these teeny tiny circus impresarios also quickly learned about their minute performers is that they were very easy to contain. At the end of every show, all they had to do was place the fleas in a jar and close the lid. In an effort to escape, the fleas would jump once, then twice. And when their little flea heads connected with the lid a mere two times, all the will would drain out of them and they would never ever make the leap again. Thus the top of the lid could be removed and the fleas would exist in the jars until they died, no matter the opportunity to free themselves.

This is the perfect analogy for what happens to creativity within most organizations. The ‘impresarios’ (read: Leaders and Managers) gather the ranks and incite, excite, demand and even attempt to inspire creativity. They claim to want and need it. They tell their people to be fearless, to take risks, to ‘think outside of the box’ (don’t even get me started on that one). And the first person (our proverbial flea) who actually tries to bring them a never before tried and certainly not tested idea, gets firmly, even if respectfully, shut down. Aaaaand there’s our lid.

The next time this same intrepid flea person comes up with an idea that doesn’t quickly and easily fit the norm, they’re far more cautious. This is not a foolish flea. “Hmmm” they ask themselves. “Is this really going to fly? I mean, it’s not like I can prove it will work.” Gamely they bring it forward and……SLAM! LID. With a bruised head and heart, our poor flea goes back to their desk, wondering where they went wrong. The next time they come up with something new and different, the likelihood of them risking the lid is little to none. Better to be a safe and happy flea than a beaten and bruised one. End creativity. End scene.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re a flea. Most leaders are oblivious to this ‘fleas in a jar’ syndrome. It’s not their intention to perpetrate this cruelty. In fact it can be the exact obvious. They believe they’re saving their precious fleas from the pain and heartbreak of FAILURE. After all, the brain’s default setting is ‘better safe than sorry’.

So what can you do — be you flea or impresario?

Flea Tips: Remove the lid in your mind. Know if you try and jump too high all at once you’re likely to bump your head. So plan and position your ideas incrementally. Ask for criteria in advance and use it to prove you’ve stayed within the realm of sanity. Make the unknown sound known. Provide little bits of context, comparisons and analogies to create a sense of comfort in your listener’s mind. Tell them you understand it might sound weird or scary on the surface then do your best to demystify. Talk about benefits and opportunities. Ask for permission to take small steps in a big idea. And encourage them to share their concerns. This back and forth alone can be the secret to minimizing fears.

Impresario Tips: Resist the temptation to slam the lid down. Breathe. Listen. Ask questions. Lots of them. This will help your reptilian brain to slowly stand down and quit trying to protect you from the dreaded ‘new and untested’ (GASP). Drop your defenses so as not to encourage an attack, whether overt or not. Voice your fears. Work with your intrepid flea to understand the idea or solution and try to recognize what and why it seems so scary, impossible or crazy. Ask yourself what you need to mitigate your concerns and ask for reasonable evolutions to the idea. Agree to start small and test. And ask yourself what’s the worst thing that might happen if you try — and know you can always stop. Finally, know that through these actions, you’re building skills in your people and helping them to help you to grow and thrive as a leader. Because even a great impresario is nothing without his or her troop of intrepid, inspired and willing fleas!

PS: For all my flea brothers and sisters — you might want to flip this post to your impresarios as a subtle hint. And to all the well-intentioned impresarios out there — if you’ve been sent this article, free the fleas!

Leslie Ehm a speaker, author, and President & Chief Fire Starter at Combustion Training. Her book SWAGGER is released 2019.