How to have a smarter, more creative workplace

The science shows us that disrespectful uncivil behaviour impacts IQ and creativity.

It will probably come as little surprise that how we’re feeling impacts our ability to do our work. If you’re like me, however, you might be shocked by the degree to which our abilities might be impacted by how we’re feeling. This is especially important because of the consequences for our workplaces, ones we might be leading and contributing to culture. I’ve recently been looking into the impacts of psychological safety in the workplace and I’ll share some here.

What I’ve learnt is that we need calm, friendly and polite workplaces that are psychologically safe, because the science shows us that this is the way to deliver our best work. Obvious right? Let’s look at what happens when we don’t have a psychologically safe work environment.

Let’s start with the most startling scientific study I came across, Dr Bruce Perry’s studies of the impact of the varied brain states of children on IQ [1]. His experiments showed that a child in a state of fear has their IQ deteriorate up to 40 points. That means a child with an IQ of 110 (around average) can drop to an IQ of 70 (suggestive of an intellectual disability). That’s shocking. I have no evidence for the same in adults with developed brains, the impact is perhaps not so great. It’s nevertheless likely that fear will noticeably impact adult performance. We’ve all experienced underperformance when under pressure and fear, either our own or someone else’s.

Our fear response is located in the amygdala centre of the brain and triggers “fight or flight” response. Without going into detail, the fight or flight response impacts the cognitive parts of the brain and can inhibit cognitive function – hence the drop in IQ. Everyone is different, some seek out scary experiences others run a mile from them, some will be impacted cognitively by fear more than others.

Fears might come from meeting expectations (personal or other people’s). A fear of making mistakes and how others might react to them. However the fears manifest, it’s safe to say a relaxed and happy workplace will allow everyone the best possible opportunity to be at their cognitive best.

Fear is an extreme scenario and we don’t have to go that far to see the impact of poor workplace behaviour. It’s been shown in studies [2] that people fail to see the information in front of them when they’re in an uncivil workplace. People’s processing abilities suffer in uncivil environments. In one study, participants belittled by the experimenter, performed 33% worse on an anagram test. Shockingly for architects, they were 39% worse on a creativity task in the same study. In another study a “busy professor” was rude to participants prior to the task where they performed 61% worse on the word puzzles and 61% worse on the creativity exercise. Just witnessing uncivil behaviour impacted participants by 22% on word puzzles and 28% on the creativity exercise. They’re extraordinary findings.

It’s not hard to extrapolate the impact of rude behaviour on a creative workplace such as an architectural practice. We can imagine the ideas undiscovered, the productivity bottle necks and the possibilities lost in an office where the culture is rude and uncivil. The remarkable thing here is that it all it takes is a single act of bad behaviour to have a profound impact.

We shouldn’t need to be told that a happy, generous and respectful workplace is a better one. It’s fair to say that’s what everyone would want. It’s probably also fair to say that we’ve all experienced more than our fair share of bad behaviour in the workplace. The aforementioned scientific studies shows us that the impact of this behaviour goes far beyond just the happiness and morale in the workplace. It has a quantifiable impact upon the quality of the work that’s done. It would be challenging for an architecture practice to sustain a 61% deterioration in creative performance.

How do we have a smarter, more creative workplace? Start by building a happy, generous and respectful workplace.


Picture by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels [edited & cropped]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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