Coaching for Creativity

December 3, 2020

Coaching for Creativity

The unprecedented changes within the business environment demands that organizations foster creativity within their employees in order to remain competitive. Our recent research demonstrates that to foster creativity in business more open, flexible and innovative learning and development initiatives should be employed. 

Coaching is positively positioned as one tool that actively facilitates the development of individuals, teams and organizations both in practice and in theory. It also appears as a key human resource development (HRD) approach that magnifies organizational and individual performance. There are many uses and interpretations of coaching even within the business context. We believe coaching is a workplace learning and development tool that can help business leaders foster creativity in organizations. 

What Is Coaching?

We conceptualize coaching as a form of one-to-one developmental approach, which is a skill that good leaders and managers at all levels should develop and make use of. Due to its diversity of applications and interpretations, there does not seem to be one common understanding of what coaching is, and definitions appear to vary according to the context and the circumstances. Many organizations appear to employ coaching as a developmental initiative rather than for remedial purposes. 

Coaching, a collaborative, results-oriented developmental tool is known for:

  • providing a safe space for learners to critically reflect on their experiences, 
  • being a non-judgmental approach, 
  • encouraging self-directed learning, 
  • accommodating diverse learning and development needs, and
  • enhancing self-understanding and confidence of learners. 

Coaching primarily focuses on the needs of the employee, encouraging individuals to be more creative, innovative and resilient in relation to their learning and development. It is vital tool for executives who are expected to develop their capacity for learning and draw energy, creativity and development out of the people that they work with.

Coaching and Creativity in an Organizational Context

When less was understood about the potential of coaching as a learning and development tool, businesses could be forgiven for the occasional transgression in applying it as a blunt-edged tool to solve problems and effect behavioral change. However, coaching has reached the mainstream of learning and development practice with a relatively strong evidence base about its potential in helping organizations to address their development gaps. However, the ability of coaching to foster creativity appears under-represented both in practice and research. Our recent research evidence shows that coaching can be used successfully as a tool to enhance creativity in organizations. In a highly competitive, complex and unpredictable business environment, creativity both at an individual and organizational level is an attractive but sometimes elusive means of achieving competitive advantage 

Where coaching is applied within a context that is supportive but appropriately challenging and tolerant of the occasional creative “blip” or mistake, it offers a flexible tool to nurture creativity and innovation. This provides a strong case for investment in coaching as an integral element of any learning and development strategy. Leaders therefore, have a key role to play to develop a culture that is receptive to foster creativity at individual, group and institutional level. Given that coaching is influenced by social, environmental, organizational, team and individual factors, HRD professionals should understand how the interplay between these factors and key stakeholders may help or hinder employee creativity. 

How Coaching Can Facilitate Creativity 

Creativity-training literature suggests that to facilitate creativity, the training should focus on the mental process of acquiring knowledge, which consists of the formation of knowledge, judgement, reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making. Coaching also has motivational characteristics that influence employees to engage in creative activities and to take risks by doing things differently. Creativity has been considered as a contextual skill set that may be cultivated and as a competency that can be developed. However, it is important to acknowledge that if organizations conceive of coaching in this narrow context there is a risk of inhibiting creativity.

Both collaborative and independent working have been identified as elements that promote creativity, more importantly social interactions and the enjoyment of those interactions appear to facilitate creativity. Practitioner experience and research suggests that employees who trust their supervisors and believe that they value creativity, tend to act more creatively. It is also clear that self-formed commitment to engage in a creative activity is imperative to successful creative endeavours rather than enforced commitments. Employee driven, facilitated decisions can have a significant influence on self-confidence, self-efficacy and innovative approaches to addressing organizational issues. 

Creative individuals are reflective and self-critical; therefore, it is vital that business leaders create a non-judgemental but challenging and critical space to encourage creativity. This required space is usually created in coaching conversations (if done correctly) which influences novel ideations and critical and reflective approach to evaluate the applicability of those ideas. There is also evidence to suggest intentional engagement, self-directed and self-managed approaches foster creativity whereas overbearing management intervention can have the opposite effect. 

Coaching creates a non-judgmental space, enhances the critical reflective abilities of individuals, encourages an individualised open approach to facilitate learning and development. This links with some of the prerequisites for creativity in organizations. Deeper personal reflections and encouraged critical reflective inquiries (through coaching) can enable individuals to seek alternative approaches to their current practices. The possibility of creating such space through closed, trainer-led programs is contestable as is the practice of creating generalized content to attempt to “train” creativity. It can be seen that the non-judgmental nature of coaching and the confidential and safe environment offers the potential to encourage innovative and novel ideas, and this is particularly important given the experimental nature of creativity. 

Organizational Challenges and Solutions 

Coaching is 6 to 12 times more expensive compared to some traditional approaches to professional development. Therefore, measuring ROI both in human and financial terms and to ensure the sustained improvements from coaching can be challenging. Power dynamics within organizations and the different stakeholder (coachee, coach, organization) agendas can act as a barrier for coaching to perform as expected. Traditionally trained leaders may find it difficult to allow coachees to develop their own learning agendas and to fully appreciate how such initiatives can help their employees to be more creative. Business leaders should be more reflective, open to learn and unlearn if they are to comprehend the full benefit of coaching for learning and development for creativity. 

Practical considerations to help overcome some of these challenges may include:

  • Be clear about what you are trying to achieve. Clarity about the purpose is vital and should be clearly communicated to all stakeholders of coaching. 
  • Develop a collective understanding of what creativity means and how coaching can add value. Once the purpose of the coaching initiative is established, a collective understanding of what creativity is and how coaching can facilitate creativity should be constructed perhaps using both practitioner and research evidence. This may also help to enhance employee and the leadership engagement with the initiative and provide the case for added value/ROI. 
  • Develop leaders. You can have the best plans in place, but if you do not ensure the readiness of leaders by challenging their preconceptions and positional power bases, this can negatively impact the effectiveness of facilitating creativity through coaching. Therefore, ensuring that leaders are trained and supported to identify coaching opportunities is vital as this enables leaders to appreciate the value that coaching plays in facilitating creativity.
  • Establish the case for coaching. Understanding and anticipating objections, anxieties and responses to coaching for creativity is critical in establishing a supportive environment and securing budget allocation within the learning and development strategy. It may also help leaders if they are realistic that coaching may not be a suitable intervention for every scenario or every employee. 
  • Create space for coaching. Developing a non-judgmental but challenging safe space is not always easy if time, cost and delivery imperatives are the prevailing organizational culture. Resource allocation alone will not encourage creativity unless complimented by supportive organizational practices and behaviour that promotes acceptance, shared leadership, tolerance and diversity. 
  • Be creative for creativity. Openness and readiness to learn are vital even if organizations already believe themselves to be creative. Promoting a critical and reflective approach that has at its heart a belief that coaching can engender creativity and innovation can have a contagious effect and will help organizations to nurture an environment that nurtures creativity for competitive advantage.
The Authors: 

Duminda Rajasinghe, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in HRM and organisational behaviour at the University of Northampton (UK).

Clare Allen is a senior lecturer and a programme leader in HRM and organisational behaviour at the University of Northampton.