In Pursuit of Profession: Do perks kill creativity?


As a kid, I struggled with a stuttering problem. As a spoke, chopping through sentences, my mind was always racing for synonyms of words that I could say as substitutes for words that I couldn’t. When my parents took me to a speech therapist, she had me go through endless rounds of repeating the words with which I had difficulty speaking. She would also take me to the shopping mall near her office so that I would do something that I completely dreaded: talk to strangers. Standing in front of the Orange Julius counter with instructions to order what I wanted, I might as well have been standing in front of a firing squad. But you know what? If I got stuck on a word, I used my ability to quickly substitute another word. It was a struggle, but I got through it. And that simple act evolved into talking to a shoe salesman about every aspect of these killer Michael Jordan basketball shoes I yearned for, and eventually volunteering with a charity to stop mall goers and ask them survey questions. Fast forward a few decades and not only was I on the radio for four years in college, but I’ve been the MC for numerous charity events and made presentations to school and professional groups and at book signings over the years. Basically, as an adult, you can’t shut me up.

Is genius sorrow’s child?

I share my tale of struggle because I read a recent article by Eric Weiner in the Los Angeles Times where he states that all the new office perks that started in Silicon Valley and have spread to many offices across the country are doing exactly the opposite of what was intended. Instead of inspiring employees to be more creative and innovative, perks like ping pong tables in the breakroom or nap pods are actually making people less so. Why? It seems that people are more creative when they need to overcome obstacles — to struggle — instead of taking advantage of their advantages. In his article, Weiner says this: “As John Adams put it, “genius is sorrow's child.” A disproportionately large percentage of geniuses lost a parent, usually a father, when they were young. Many suffered illnesses throughout their lives. Thomas Edison was partially deaf, Aldous Huxley partially blind. Alexander Graham Bell and Picasso were dyslexic. Michelangelo, Titian, Goya and Monet all suffered from various illnesses that actually improved their artwork. What doesn't kill you may not make you stronger, but it will make you more creative.”

Are perks the enemy?

Even though throughout history people have struggled to overcome hardships with creative solutions, perks are not the enemy. What is, it seems, is the way in which they are used. “In a society where quick, absolute solutions are so often expected, advertised, and promised, it’s simply not popular to admit that human behavior is more complex than that. Stoking creativity in the workplace must be a strategic, informed act,” said Natosha K. Monroe, a Fort Worth-based psychological consultant and cognitive behavioral therapist who has helped both individuals and companies as a career counselor and as a consultant, respectively. “It’s not that office perks can’t work because clearly they can and do, it’s just that they are often chosen and put into place by people who have no clue about what truly motivates and produces results. The simple act of nailing a dart board to a breakroom wall or tossing out performance-based vacation vouchers will not guarantee results. Why? The motivation factor. Individuals’ interests vary and so they must be piqued in different ways.”

Monroe also challenged the claim that hardship is a universal motivator for creativity. “Hardship is for the most part relative and a matter of perception,” she said. “Hardships can motivate or discourage depending upon an individual’s unique personality. If someone’s hardship is a terminally ill family member, for example, he may be distracted and perform poorly or he may throw himself into work and excel in his desire to escape his sadness or secure salary and insurance.”

One last interesting point Monroe brought up about the hardship-creativity link is it’s place in our evolved society today. “It’s undeniable that hardships have historically inspired solution and innovation,” said Monroe. “That being said, time and place are key factors, and in the current U.S. society an employee’s psyche is typically influenced or even dominated by expected comfort and entitlement. How does an employer account for this new reality?”

All about value

Rather than think about perks, Monroe suggested employers need to focus on value. “A study conducted through the American Psychological Association (2012) indicates that employees who feel valued by their employers are more motivated in the workplace: 93 percent of valued employees stated they felt motivated to perform to the best of their ability compared to just 33 percent of employees who did not see themselves as valued,” said Monroe. And maybe that’s where the misunderstanding lies – employers think that by bringing in ping pong tables and nap pods they are showing employees that they are valued. But knowing that you’re valued is often felt on a much deeper level. “Some employers think they are doing a good thing when they survey their employees on incentives. However, to maximize effectiveness employers must recognize the highest levels of motivation are not usually inspired by material reward and sometimes not even on a conscious level,” said Monroe. “U.S. companies and employers have mastered the art of checking the box and making things look good on paper. But when it comes to getting the most out of their employees, this is a huge mistake that can easily be avoided with just a touch of psychological assessment and implementation.”