How Defensive Thinking Limits Creativity and Makes You Less Insightful

On defining your life by what you are for rather than what you are against.

Lance Baker
May 15, 2020 · 9 min read

In the pursuit of any endeavor, it is natural to want to avoid errors and risks while increasing accuracy and predictability. However, the more we tend to focus on avoiding errors, the more likely we are to sacrifice the innovation and insights needed to continue building upon our successes.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we forgo trying to reduce errors. We just have to recognize that the more we focus on predictability, the less likely we’ll be to remain open to new ideas. An overemphasis on security will naturally lead to rigid and defensive thinking — making the very insights needed to grow, discover, and adapt less obtainable.

How Structures Limit Insights and Creativity

Many new businesses and start-ups become successful because they were built upon flexibility, experimentation, and exploration. Then, when they become mainstream, they try to institutionalize their systems which sometimes kills the very things that made them successful in the first place.

In his book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, Gary Klein explores how institutions often unintentionally inhibit the very insights they claim to want and value.

He uses the example of a manager approaching her director with what she feels are some great insights from one of her team members on how to revamp a current project to improve the final outcome.

You take her suggestion to your director. The expression on his face flits between pity and contempt. He patiently reminds you — in that slow-talking style that makes it seem as if he were dealing with someone who is mentally handicapped — that the contract was written to conform to the project tasks. Progress payments are linked to the timetable for completing each phase. If you shift the schedule, the automatic payments will get suspended until you can get a new plan approved, a process that might take months.

It may be that such a change cannot be implemented in this case, but the director’s response is defensive and dismissive. This type of posture has a ripple effect on the entire company. Klein explains how this manager might leave her director’s office after such an interaction.

You have learned that insights about tasks and goals threaten your relationship with your director. They weaken your credibility. You walk out of his office berating yourself for being so foolish and vowing not to make that mistake again, not to rush to him with any more bright ideas.

Your director has started to look at you as someone he’ll have to keep an eye on, no longer a person who can be counted on. You have some work to do to restore your reputation.

What has happened to you? Previously you believed that you wanted to encourage insights. Now you view them with suspicion. It turns out that if you are like most managers, you place a high value on predictability. Your job is much easier if you can accurately predict the work flow, resources, and schedules. Your job is easier if you can accurately gauge progress in moving toward the official project goal. You have fallen into the predictability trap: you are so captured by the lure of predictability that you make it too high a priority.

Insight is the opposite of predictable. Insights are disruptive. They come without warning, take forms that are unexpected, and open up unimagined opportunities.

The stronger the organizational structure is, the weaker the insights will likely be because people are afraid of being seen as disruptive. In such environments, the results will always be the same. Growth, creativity, and innovation will become more and more difficult to gain traction. Robert Fritz touches on this in his book Your Life As Art:

A position sometimes seems to dictate the behavior of the people who fill it more than the people themselves.

Here is a pattern we see in many organizations, large and small: A person is not working well; management does everything to help improve performance, but to no avail. Finally, the person is replaced. Six months later, the replacement is performing exactly like his or her predecessor.

What are the chances that companies keep hiring the same types of employees over and over? What are the chances the company structures are resulting in the same outcomes from employees over and over? People are hired because of their proven track record and propensity for success, but then are often limited by the rigid structures in place. Their creativity and unique insight cannot break through.

Crippled By Design

We need systems of thinking and doing that deliver results and reduce errors. However, a simultaneous emphasis on creativity and insight must take place to avoid the rigid and concrete thinking that these systems naturally produce.

For every step you take in avoiding errors, you need to take two in the direction of innovation and insight. Take checklists for example. It can take a ton of work to figure out what an effective process is for completing a task. Naturally, it makes sense to document this so that others don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but there is a downside. Klein writes:

The downside of checklists is that they intentionally induce mindlessness. We just have to follow the steps and not think about them. The important thinking has already been done by the checklist designers. When we follow checklists and procedure manuals, we disengage our active thinking processes, just the reverse of the inquiring mind-set that generates insights.

A checklist mentality is contrary to a playful, exploratory, curiosity-driven mentality.

The takeaway here is not to get rid of checklists because they limit insight, but to explore ways to keep that “playful, exploratory, curiosity-driven mentality” open knowing that checklists will inherently limit those things over time.

It is also worth noting that even those who claim to want creative ideas have a natural bias against new and innovative ideas. Klein writes:

In 2012, Jennifer Mueller, Shimul Melwani, and Jack Goncalo published a study of why people have an aversion to creativity even though they claim to want creative ideas. The researchers found that if an idea is novel, people automatically assume it isn’t practical, reliable, or error free. Novel ideas are associated with failures.

Of course, this is contradictory considering every innovation, new business idea, creative product, and so on is the result of a novel idea. We have a natural bias against change. If we can recognize that this natural aversion to creativity infiltrates our endeavors, then we can counteract it in purposeful ways. If we don’t acknowledge it, then we will be prone to devolve into a rigid and concrete way of being that may ultimately make our endeavors obsolete.

Cultivating Insight and Playful Thinking

Sometimes the organizational structure itself filters out insights and ideas before they can reach the people with the authority to make the changes. Klein tells a story in his book about a general who regularly jumps the standard chain of command and will open up a dialogue with lower-ranking officers. This allows him to hear ideas before they are filtered out by mid-ranking officials who might be afraid to relay certain ideas up to him.

If the company culture has become too rigid and focused on error avoidance over innovation, people will be afraid to come forward with ideas and insights. It is just easier to toe the line. Directors and managers have to be vigilant about creating environments where team members are encouraged to brainstorm and share ideas free of judgment.

Project retrospectives can be a safe time to capture insights and ideas. These are often skipped or omitted but they can be a great environment to exchange ideas without risking active projects. Taking a few minutes to talk about what went well, what didn’t work, and brainstorm new ideas can be a helpful way to revamp systems that might need to be refreshed.

This doesn’t just apply to the workplace, a personal retrospective can be tremendously helpful. You could just stop and reflect on the past month of your life. What has been going well? What has been going poorly? What changes can you make to improve the next month?

A lot of us probably don’t have much control over the big organizational structures where we work but, there is a lot that we can do in our personal lives. Our thought patterns can get us stuck in the same repetitive structures that lead to a rigid, defensive, and uncreative life. Robert Fritz says it this way:

Instead of letting your life be dominated by problems, begin to focus your attention, energy, creativity, and spirit on creating. Shift the topic from what you want to avoid, eradicate, or eliminate, to what you want to create, build, and produce. And let your mind help you in the process.

We live in a time where people seem to define themselves more by what they are against than what they are for. We see more of people’s shaming, criticizing, negative comments, and arguments than we do the beauty of what they want to see in the world. They may genuinely be against something that is worth fighting against — like racism, inequality, injustice, etc. But sometimes such defensive thinking never gets to building the beautiful thing they desire. They become angry, cynical, jaded, and shred apart anyone or anything in the way. In their pursuit against a valid foe, they become just as ugly as the thing they were against to begin with. Fritz comments:

People who spend their lives being against things can’t think in terms of their true aspirations. Perhaps they are against injustice. We applaud them for that. There is much real injustice in the world. How can we best address it? From a problem solving point of view, we attack it. From a creating point of view, we bring into existence justice. To be against injustice is not enough if justice is what we seek. We can build into our society a vision of justice, followed by the possibility of its manifestation. And then, as a secondary choice to that primary choice, fight against justice within the context of the real goal — justice.

If we are against hate in the world then we must demonstrate love — not defame and slander those who hate. If we want equality, we cannot simply shout down everyone who disagrees with us. People who spread hate and violence are often the most broken and wounded themselves. Their hate is a refusal, or inability, to face their own pain. They can only change through healing, self-awareness, and love. We have to live, demonstrate, and be the love and beauty we want to see in the world in order to change it. This cannot happen through a defensive posture — from a place constantly against things. Fritz continues:

No one understood this principle better than Martin Luther King, Jr. He fought against injustice with great courage and strength of character. Yet he understood that love is a more powerful force than hate. It was easier to mobilize people through hate. Many tried and succeeded for a short time. But, learning his lessons from Gandhi and Christ, he mobilized people through his commitment to some of the highest principles there are — freedom, love, truth, fairness, righteousness, and justice. His love of freedom and justice dominated the motivation of his movement. In some essential ways, his complex life was as clear and simple as it gets. Work toward the manifestation of love, truth, freedom, equality, and justice.

Leaning Forward

We have to create and design systems because they allow us to get things done. However, we have to understand that our systems will have a natural propensity to lead to rigid and concrete thinking. This results in defensive stances where insights and innovation are seen as disruptions. Insights and innovation are fundamental to survival and long-term success.

If we become too attached to any particular system, be it a way of doing things or certain beliefs, we’ll end up defending those systems instead of focusing on what the systems were designed to facilitate. We should be focused on the product or outcome, not the system we devised to bring it into the world. A defensive, security-driven, mindset can never give birth. It will only maintain the status quo and avoid all things disruptive.

A defensive posture is cynical and critical whereas a curious and playful posture is always asking questions, seeking input, and remaining open to ideas. Our focus always needs to be on what we are for. If we define our thoughts and actions primarily by what we are against we become rigid, less creative, and more resistant.

I realize that I’m intertwining personal development and corporate structures here and it can seem a bit odd, but I think they function much in the same way. Corporate structures can become rigid and debilitating in the same way thought structures can become rigid and debilitating. Corporate structures can back innovation into a corner in the same way personal thought and belief structures can. Both can become crippled by their own systems.

Life is most beautiful and exciting when we are creating, birthing, exploring, and manifesting the things we want to see in the world — not just defending them from threats and intrusions.

Assemblage

A work of art made by grouping found or unrelated objects.

Lance Baker

Written by

A fellow observer on the journey through life. Trying to cultivate a deeper way of being in the world.

Assemblage

A collection of things or people. An object made of pieces fitted together. A work of art made by grouping found or unrelated objects. A publication on Medium.

Lance Baker

Written by

A fellow observer on the journey through life. Trying to cultivate a deeper way of being in the world.

Assemblage

A collection of things or people. An object made of pieces fitted together. A work of art made by grouping found or unrelated objects. A publication on Medium.

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