Banish Loop Thinking: How to Help Employees find their Creative Mojo

organizational culture

Recently I ran up against the creative scourge known as writer's block.

I spent hours staring at blank Word docs, feeling both guilty (I'm going to be late on deadline!) and worried (what will people say if I'm late on deadline?!).

I got stuck in endless rounds of searching the web for That One Important Fact I knew I'd seen somewhere; the one with the statistic that would make everything clear and absolutely, positively unclog the drain.

Hours later, all I had to show for it was a blank page, and 20 open tabs on my browser.

Writer's Block - What Gives?

A research consultant explained my problem. "When we have a stress response, we're susceptible to loop thinking," said Lucy English who, as managing director of institutional research for Horizons Workforce Consulting, conducted a study on innovation.

"So you're working on something and instead of making progress you get stuck on some stupid detail that actually doesn't mean anything, but you keep at it. That's loop thinking.

"For me," Lucy told me, "I'll mess with Power Point formatting. Somebody else might spend the day searching for a statistic on the web."

I looked sadly at my 20 useless open tabs.

"It's just easier than trying to deal with the problem."

What Do We Do About It?

So what causes loop thinking, and more importantly...how do we cure it? The cause, she says, is fear. When that happens, "Our amygdala lights up," she says. It's an ancestral response from back when our forebears needed to avoid, say, a woolly mammoth. Admittedly, it's a lot less useful in present-day offices where the fear is of unmet deadlines. "It does tend to be a bit over-reactive," says Lucy.

So what breaks the loop? Simple: trust and belonging. "Experiments show that when people feel connected to their team -- when they feel safe about sharing; when they can be honest about hang-ups inside and outside of work; or when they can offer ideas freely without feeling they'll be shot down as foolish - they're more creative," she says. "When we feel safe and supported, we think in an entirely different way." We're also a lot happier than we are in unsupportive workplaces, which, according to this guy, are literally killing us.

Which brings me back to writer's block. Morning came and with it my deadline. The fear of woolly mammoths was palpable; the only answer was to fess up about my stalemate. "Don't worry about the writer's block," said Catherine, the very understanding senior director on the receiving end of my deadline, "as you say, it will pass. Though I know it is much easier for me to say this than for you to live it."

"I said the same thing," added my equally compassionate colleague, Evan, who also suggested I listen to Hannah Montana's The Climb (he was kidding. I think). "Much easier said than done!"

Both were delivered with happy emojis.

The sense of danger evaporated. My amygdala was at peace. And what do you know -- I started writing.

"So all of the positive work-culture things we talk about isn't just good for us - it's science?" I asked Lucy.

"Yup," she said.

I'd like to say the sense of safety completely eradicated the block (it didn't). But the collective support did get me to see the problem in a new way. And before the end of the day, I met my deadline: I wrote a blog about how trust and happy workplaces make us better at our jobs.

Science. Huh. How 'bout that.

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.