Psychologists Explain: How To Get Your Boss To Listen To Creative Ideas

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of working summers for a big roofing company here in Portland. It was my first “real” job, and I used the money to help pay for school.

One day, under the hot sun, lamenting how slow we were moving, I started to think of different ways we could work that would speed us up and get us out of the sun faster. I spent the day thinking it through and, when we came to work the next morning, I caught my foreman at break time and pitched him my idea.

Mitch, I noticed we normally have the whole crew laying lead pans in the morning before we start doing roofing. When we finish, we have to get all the roofing materials ready. That only takes two people, and the rest of us have to wait around until it’s done.

I was thinking: What if we put just two people on the lead pans in the morning—that’s enough to stay ahead of the crew—while the rest of the team gets the roofing materials ready and starts laying roofing behind us. Then we could finish the job before it gets hot and miserable.

I was proud of myself; I’d come up with a pretty creative solution to a problem we all shared. Here was Mitch’s response, verbatim:

You’re not paid to think. You’re paid to work. Get back on the roof.

I was totally deflated. I’d really thought this through and wanted to contribute something to my crew. I was sure Mitch was going to love it, and the whole crew would carry me off the job on their shoulders (because we’d be done before it got too hot for that).

Throughout the years, I had similar experiences at different jobs. Still, today, I face the same challenge with teams I work with from time to time. I’ll pitch a creative idea I think is going to change everything, only to be met with a ho-hum reply:

That sounds… interesting… but I don’t think it’s right for us.

You’ve probably had similar experiences at work.

If you want to advance in your career, one of the most important things you need to do is make sure your creative ideas are accepted by the people who will actually make them a success. Without buy-in from your boss and others who can actually bring your ideas to life, they’ll either go nowhere, or they’ll take off and crash spectacularly, leaving you with less credibility for new creative ideas going forward.

This is important stuff!

But driving home the other day listening to Shankar Vedantam—my favorite NPR correspondent—I stumbled onto a few studies that explain the intricate psychology of creating truly creative ideas and getting others to buy into them.

There is, in fact, a method you can use, and it’s scientifically proven. It’s been fascinating to study this stuff, and I’ve already put the concepts to work a few times with success.

Read on to learn these secrets to creative persuasion.

Want To Be More Creative? Pretend You’re Someone Else

There’s a difference between actually being creative and getting people to accept your ideas. And while you and I think of ourselves as creative already, there are actually a few scientifically proven tactics you can use to increase your creativity, and they all have to do with… distance.

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to solve your friends’ problems, but not your own? Someone laments their life over a beer one night, and the first thing you think is, “Oh, that one’s easy!” Of course, then, your mind drifts off to your own problems and you go to bed that night thinking, “Damn, my problems are so hard!”

The reason your friends’ problems are easy to solve is because of what’s known as temporal distance. You’re not intimately familiar with every last detail of their lives or how your easy solutions will cause a domino effect, touching every different part of them.

To you, their problems are further away, so you’re able to look at them from a distance and come up with creative solutions; nevermind the details.

But when you look at your own problems, your attention is highly focused on the details, and details are what kill any good, creative idea. You might come up with something truly clever, but you hesitate to start it because you can see how it might cause problems in other parts of your life. You start weighing all the little pros and cons and end up spiraling down until it all seems like too much work. Then, you go back to doing what you’ve always done.

This concept was recently studied by a team of researchers at Indiana University. They found when people thought about problems that were temporally distant—not theirs, hypothetical, wouldn’t happen for a long time, etc.—they came up with consistently more varied and creative solutions.

But here’s something even more interesting.

The same team of researchers found that spatial distance produced the same results. They did another study asking subjects to solve several different problems. One group was told the problems were developed by other researchers thousands of miles away. Another group was told the problems were developed right around the corner.

Guess who solved them faster and with more creative responses? Group one, of course!

So, if you want to be more creative in your everyday life, the simple tactic of detaching yourself from the problem you’re trying to solve will help you come up with new and interesting ideas. And taking yourself on a little vacation can also do wonders for creativity.

You’ve probably always felt like that’s true, but now you have real evidence it is.

But how does this help you get your ideas actually listened to by others?

What Makes Bosses Listen To Creative Ideas?

Alright. You’ve taken your creativity to the extreme, and now you want to make these ideas of yours come to life. Maybe you’ve got some that will improve your work and career. It’s time to get other people—particularly your boss—on board so you’ll have the support to see them through and be successful.

You excitedly pitch a crazy new idea one day over lunch, and you get the same response I did at the roofing company years ago. Maybe your boss is a little more diplomatic, though:

Um, I’m really glad you’re so enthusiastic, but that idea will never work for us.

How do you get them on board? How do you bring your creative ideas to life? Turns out, all those creativity hacks you learned above work on other people, too.

Think about who your boss is, how she thinks, and why she has the job she does. If she’s like many managers, she’s gotten where she is because she’s intimately familiar with the work you do. She knows it inside and out, and she has a record of success keeping your business on track—probably by doing things the same way they’ve always been done.

Remember that pesky problem with details from above? They keep you from seeing new solutions to your problems. This same problem is afflicting your boss. She knows every detail of your work, so it’s  hard for her to accept new, creative ideas.

But if you use the psychological trick of creating temporal distance with her, you may find she’s much more receptive to your new ideas.

How do you do this?

First, rather than pitching a new idea in a way that makes it feel like it would happen now, try framing it as more of a hypothetical. Paint your idea as a picture of what things could be like, maybe some time in the future. Maybe something like:

Can you imagine what our future would be like if we made this change in how we work [insert creative ideas]?

This will take the pressure off your boss to feel like she has to act on it now, and that will allow her to see the possibilities and consider them and not immediately put up red flags. You’re slowly warming her up.

Next, try to work your pitch in a way that draws on ideas that come from far away. Find examples of similar ideas being done in other cultures or places that are far away. This will play on the physical distance aspect of creativity. We don’t really know what causes it yet, but we’re more open to ideas that come from far away. Try something like this:

I saw how a company like ours in [faraway place] does things so differently from us. What do you think would happen if we implemented a few of those ideas?

You might even consider the method you use to pitch your idea. Don’t bring it up in person at first. Instead, send an email. Maybe even send it on the weekend or another time that would catch her thinking about things other than work. A phone call could do the same.

If you wanted to really play on this psychological tactic, take a vacation to somewhere far away and just happen to call in your idea while you’re hanging out in a foreign land.

Whatever you do, make sure you’re creating temporal and even physical space when trying to get buy-in for a new idea. You’ll see your success rate skyrocket.

Do This In The Next 10 Minutes

Your mind is racing right now. You’re inspired to put this tactic to work, but you’re not quite sure where or how to use it just yet. You’re telling yourself, “This is good. I’ll come back to it another time when I feel more ready.”

This is the danger zone! What you really need to do is get started on it now. And you can do it in just the next 10 minutes. Here’s what I want you to do.

  1. Get out a piece of paper and a pen.
  2. Write down one idea you’re passionate about and would like to get your boss (or someone else equally important) on board with. Don’t make this an epic, existential question. Just pick something for now.
  3. Now, write down how you can pitch this idea to this person in a way that will create lots of temporal and even physical distance. How can you make them think about the possibilities and not potential problems?
  4. Leave a comment telling us all how you’ll bring this idea up with this person by the end of the day.

Big things only happen if you get started on them now in a small way. If you want to live adventurously, add more creativity to your life, and get others to share in the possibilities your creativity brings, follow the steps above. Then, watch how your ideas take off in new and unexpected ways.

Just imagine a future where you put these ideas to work…

Additional sources for this article:
An Easy Way to Increase Creativity
Lessons from a Faraway land: The effect of spatial distance on creative cognition