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Assessing for creativity with Sue Colton

Sue Colton took the time to talk to us about how we can best identify creativity in potential employees

Do creative traits like innovation always belong to the designers among us? Is there a blue-sky thinker out there well-suited to the compliance department? We may all want creative individuals working for us, but there’s a balance to be struck.

An experienced workplace psychologist with SJC Consulting and an affiliate with Sheffield Haworth, Sue Colton took the time to talk to us about how we can best identify creativity in potential employees, and how creative attributes combine with other personality traits to create the ideal – and not so ideal – candidate for every job.

“What we do is part of the process of understanding an individual.”

What do employers say they want when it comes to creativity in today’s job market?

The problem for many employers – and people in general – is that they don’t define creativity as a behavioural competence. They see it as a technical skill, “You can paint and draw, so you must be a very creative person.” But Sue questions this definition.

“Not many corporate companies use the term creativity, despite wanting creative skills in their people. They want strategists and forward and divergent thinkers. They want innovators and problem solvers.”

These are examples of behavioural attributes – innovation, curiosity and adaptability, rather than technical skills but still equate to creative mastery. Leaders, for example, often need to be creative in how they bring a sense of purpose to their role and instil that in those who work for them – bringing out the team’s creativity and encouraging new ideas. Leaders have a vision they are able to communicate.

“Leaders need to draw a compelling picture of the future in people’s head. That takes creativity.”

But, for most positions, clients want the best of both worlds, explains Sue. It seems, as employers, we’re all looking for that rare thing – the innovative visionary with proven operational and implementation abilities. Sue tells us that although a 50/50 split may sound perfect to a lot of employers, it is rare:

“It’s not often people are both strategic and operational.  Our innate preferences will see us either more attuned to possibilities and ideas, or focusing on the here and now, literal position.  Although we can learn to incorporate both these approaches, we will be inclined towards one or other.”

The difference between a trait and a skill

Sue tells us that a trait is acting, thinking and feeling in a certain way. These are your behavioural tendencies, your natural abilities. Skills are different – you can learn and improve your writing or your public speaking. All of this in varying forms needs to be considered for each role.

How do you test for levels or creativity and different creative traits in candidates?

Sue explained that the hiring client will give SJC Consulting a brief, before asking candidates to  complete an appropriate highly validated personality questionnaire which helps measure the behavioural traits of the individual.

“It’s then our job to assimilate the data and read between the lines and test the output against the criteria for the role. We are looking for the relevant amalgam of behavioural traits.”

Sue takes a holistic approach – she wants to determine a candidate’s overall ‘behavioural portrait’ as she calls it, by looking at how each trait interacts with another.

“Some tools only measure certain aspects of behaviour, such as attitudes to risk and leadership, but we need to use personality assessments that cover a broad range of traits. These provide an opportunity to consider where one trait may be mitigated or managed by another, so looking into the uniqueness of trait dynamics .”

Sue will always discuss the output of the assessment with the candidates and the employers. This  helps validate the findings, and allows candidates to increase their self-awareness, and to reflect on and discuss their strengths and weaknesses and what they can bring to the role. It also allows the hiring panel to reaffirm what the company is looking for and what combination of creative traits and technical skills might work for its company.

Can your methods spot a creative candidate with a lack of work experience?

Sue looks at a number of issues to ascertain whether a candidate is creative. For younger employees, particularly graduates, getting a handle on how they behave in the workplace is more difficult, as there are fewer past examples to draw upon.

“We can always look at hobbies and how they go about solving problems at school or university. Perhaps now, how have they coped with Covid-19, so other day-to-day examples of divergent thinking What is their predisposition for coping with stress, is another one.”

 The idea is to draw out experiences of change and solving problems – things creatives are adept at dealing with.

Are you looking for optimum levels of creativity for different roles and different work cultures?

Personality assessments can show certain behavioural traits working together and against each other. And it’s where those traits play off each other and interact that allow employers to see if this is the right candidate for them.

“We might find a candidate who is highly innovative, but is not conscientious and does not listen to other’s opinions. There would be a risk to the end result of this type of creativity so it’s all about finding the right balance relevant to the role.”

We may assume that creative people are good communicators. It’s hard to think of a role where this would not be a bonus, but when we look at a candidate in context, this may not be the case.

“Someone may have strong debating skills and good foresight, but may not be a team player. They may prefer to go it alone. Being a team player is going to be especially important to businesses in a world where people may not have the same connections as they did when all in the office at the same time.”

Every creative trait and skill needs to be seen in context. You have to relate the level of creativity to the role that’s being assessed. We may want a financial analyst candidate, for example, who can put forward new ideas when problem solving inter-departmental reporting issues. This is a useful creative trait for this role, but it must go hand-in-hand with technical ability and the right behavioural traits for the team and culture.

“Remember, two create a dynamic, but several create a culture. That’s why the levels of creativity and the kind of creativity required is different in various roles and workplaces. Having charisma may sound great, but a charismatic candidate could equally be dogmatic and controlling, and not enjoy being challenged.”

Questions like, are they expected to work collaboratively or alone, how receptive are they to the input of others and what might cause them stress are a big part of whether creative and non-creative candidates alike will be able to thrive in a particular role.

Remember this is a holistic process

“Our assessments look at peoples’ personalities as part of the process, and are always considered alongside technical ability, past experience and the culture of the team they’ll be working with.”

 But Sue stresses that many of the creative traits she assesses are becoming more important in the age of Covid-19. And more people are having to become creative.

“As individual’s many of us have unwittingly become more creative this last year, in having embraced the challenges and recognising the need to reinvent ourselves, our roles and our approach to life.”

 Those creative personality traits – flexibility, responsiveness, the ability to embrace change – are increasingly important for employers. And after what we’ve all been through over the past year, those traits may be showing up more and more on our own personality assessments.

To find out more about our creativity series in partnership with the University of Arts London, please click here.  To understand how you can harness creativity in your own organisation please contact Tim McEwan or Ben Johnson.