Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Are You Letting Pink Elephants Hold Back Your Team’s Creativity?

In today’s highly competitive global market, creativity and collaboration are becoming more and more valued as the necessary ingredients for organizational success and growth. Naturally, the thread that weaves and connects these two elements together is communication, not just in terms of what we convey to one another, but also in regards to what we tell ourselves.

To give you an example of this, I had a conversation recently with my younger daughter about her inconsistent performance in her social studies class, where at times she’d achieve 90% on one test only to get 75% on the next one. I asked her what she thought was the reason why her marks fluctuated so much between tests, to which she replied with a tinge of frustration that she can’t do well in this subject.

After a beat, I looked at her and told her “don’t think about pink elephants”. Seeing the confused look on her face, I asked her “what are you thinking about right now?”. Flashing a small smile, she admitted that for some reason, she was thinking about pink elephants.

I pointed out to her that when we tell ourselves to avoid something because it’s negative, our mind starts to focus on that very idea, but in a negative light as a measure to protect ourselves from harm or danger. And as she just experienced, when we tell ourselves what we don’t want to do, our brain can’t help but think about it.

This conversation with my daughter got me thinking about the other protective neurological mechanisms that reside in our brain and how, like in the case of my daughter, they can have a deleterious impact not just on our learning perceptions, but on our creativity and drive to perform.

With this in mind, I want to share three strategies leaders can use to ensure that their words and actions don’t inadvertently activate these neurological responses that can limit your team’s creativity and willingness to collaborate with others in order to achieve your organization’s shared goals.

1. Shift your focus from negative consequences to learning opportunities
Going back to my daughter’s example, I used this exercise of telling her not to think of pink elephants to show her how in making negative statements about her capability – despite evidence to the contrary – she was creating an artificial barrier in her brain about her real potential and ability to learn.

Consequently, when she’d face a difficult assignment or test, her brain would hold her back as a ‘protective’ measure and this would not only make it harder for her to do better, but it would feed a self-perpetuating negative perception of her capabilities. Getting her to recognize that she was focusing on negative outcomes instead of on how to improve for next time made her feel more confident that she could get a better handle on learning the subject.

In the weeks since that talk, she’s not only performing more consistently in that class, but her marks have actually improved as well.

Similarly, it’s important that through your leadership you demonstrate to your employees that learning is about discovering what you could do better, and not just what you did wrong. The focus on the latter is why so many of us struggle with using failure as a learning opportunity because we frame it in a negative light. As a result, failure and mistakes become something we want to avoid instead of an opportunity to learn how we can do better the next time around.

2. Learn to serve as your organization’s rudder instead of its anchor
Neurological studies have found that our brain processes information every five seconds in a binary fashion where it labels the new data as either a reward or a threat. The most familiar example of this mechanism is our instinctual fight-or-flight response, which understandably conjures up images of either standing our ground for what’s ours or fleeing the scene because it’s too dangerous.

Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t distinguish between what would be viewed as common, everyday decisions and those that involve a more serious or risky situation. Indeed, studies have shown that our brain experiences social distress in the same way as physical distress, which explains why certain emotional traumas can have such a powerful physical impact on us.

In this light, we can begin to appreciate how those risk-adverse decisions we make are not only driven by our desire to protect the status quo, but are a reflection of our brain’s binary decision-making process; that we see these choices as more of a threat than an opportunity for our employees to discover a potential new avenue for growth and success.

Being mindful of how our brain processes new information and ideas can help leaders to become organizational rudders by serving to help guide and lead their employees in the right direction, instead of acting like anchors that hold their organization in a stationary position.

3. Ensure consistency in actions and words to reduce the threat response
When it comes to threats, most of relate to this in terms of risks to our safety and well-being. And yet, for our brain, threats are a lot more diverse than that with even the most subtle things being identified by our brain’s binary information process as a threat.

The reason for this is that our brain operates as a predicting machine; it likes to anticipate what’s going to happen next. This is no doubt why mysteries and puzzles are so tantalizing as it taps into our brain’s desire to predict what the final outcome will be. Conversely, this is also a key reason for why so many of us are adverse to change because it makes it difficult for our brain to figure out what’s going to happen next.

The problem, though, is that regardless of whether the threat is a serious or minor one, our brain responds to it in the same fashion – that is, it not only reduces our field of perception, but it also reduces our cognitive functions, our creativity, and our ability to collaborate.

In fact, a study by Friedman and Forster found that when faced with a mild threat, our creativity levels decrease by 50%. Furthermore, our brains allocate five times more resources to a threat response than it does for a reward response, another reason why even small threats can have a powerful impact on our sense of creativity and ability to collaborate.

Granted, in light of the uncertainty that continues to pervade today’s global economy, there’s plenty out there for organizations and their employees to view as threats instead of rewards. But this is why it’s becoming increasingly important for leaders to ensure that they avoid introducing further uncertainties by remaining consistent in both their actions and words.

By demonstrating to your employees that what you stand for, what matters to you and your organization remains constant despite external changes, you can help to reduce this threat response and with it, sustain and build up your employees’ creativity levels and their willingness to collaborate.

Furthermore, as my daughter’s example illustrates, it’s equally important to remember that the language we use plays a critical role not just in what we communicate, but in how others perceive our message. That’s why so many successful organizations focus on developing a common language so as to ensure that everyone understands what’s required of them and what they hope to collectively achieve.

In their book, “Words Can Change Your Brain”, Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman write –

Language shapes our behavior and each word we use is imbued with multitudes of personal meaning. The right words spoken in the right way can bring us love, money and respect, while the wrong words – or even the right words spoken in the wrong way – can lead to a country to war. We must carefully orchestrate our speech if we want to achieve our goals and bring our dreams to fruition.”

By learning more about how our brains work, the more we can bring our humanity and our true selves to our work because we have a greater clarity about how we think, how we perceive and how we can influence those around us.

In developing this greater understanding of our brain mechanics, we can appreciate how it impacts the way we go about making decisions, how and why we collaborate with others, and how we can better serve those we lead in facilitating organizational change that’s necessary to ensuring our continual growth and evolution.

In so doing, we might ensure that through our actions and words, we encourage our employees to tap into their creativity and drive to collaborate by keeping those pink elephants at bay so our employees can move forward towards success and achievement.

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  1. On November 21st, 2012 at 10:45 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Very interesting post. I believe I read in the Heath Brothers last book Switch which was all about how to get people to buy into change/innovation, they indicated that 2/3's of the emotion words in our English dictionary are negative.

    Why is most people look at the downside? Has media influenced us? Whatever happened to those touchy feely good stories? Is it the turbulent times we live in that has breed insecurity thus thinking of the downside. Man I have to go to the park Tanveer and think about pink elephants.

    The insight about how our brains are wired was really good. Thank you for sharing.

  2. On November 21st, 2012 at 1:04 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Jim,

    Those are some interesting questions you ask. I think part of the answer to them relates to the point I made about how our brains operate like predicting machines; that the current uncertainty we see, read and watch fuels our brain's threat response. And given how our brain responds with 5 times more resources, it naturally holds our attention.

    Also, as was mentioned in the interview I did with Shirzad Chamine in episode #9 of my "Leadership Biz Cafe" podcast show, it take 3 positive events to overcome a single negative event. When you pair these facts together, it becomes more apparent why we seem to see more negativity in our words.

    That's why I think it's important to shed light on such strategies because as others have pointed out in their works, it is very much possible for us to overcome them once we gain a better awareness and understanding of these mechanisms.

    I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this piece, Jim. I always enjoy the opportunity to bring some of my love of science into the discussion of how we can do a better job leading those under our care.

  3. On November 22nd, 2012 at 4:49 AM @KimunyaMugo said:

    Great post Tanveer. Just yesterday, I got a call to invite me to a 2-day workshop on communication and emerging nick-knacks…

    The consultant went on and on about how I'll learn to be more successful in my communication work. I have heard this over and over again. I stopped him in his tracks with this: "Do you have any module or case study that addresses failure? I think the participants could also learn a lot from that too, don't you think?" He went dead silent for a few seconds. "Actually, I have never heard that line of thought," he responded. He also added that they need to seriously consider adding it to their training. He even suggested that they may invite me to speak about it.

    You see, we are so attuned to avoid negative thoughts. I actually have a section titled "Pink elephant" in my upcoming book "Home Bound: Lead at Home in 6 Intentional Steps". In it I look at some very hurtful experiences I went through during my childhood and how I used them as a launch-pad to becoming a better father and leader at home.

  4. On November 22nd, 2012 at 4:00 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Kimunya,

    Your comments remind me of one of my favourite concepts – that we're not defined by what happens to us, but by how we choose to respond and learn from those experiences.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with this.

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