Creativity in the workplace

How the art of recognising hidden criteria can keep you sane

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Hidden Criteria, Novelty and the Gag Reflex

Creativity in the workplace makes people uncomfortable. Let’s explore this, since understanding generic dynamics can help you preserve your courage.

When we propose a novel concept that disrupts cherished assumptions and tacit expectations, we need to expect hidden criteria to surface. Hidden criteria are the crutches decision-makers lean on as they attempt to block something truly disruptive because it is frightening or destabilizing.

In the face of fear, the limbic system hijacks the mind and unseats reason. This somatic reaction stands behind the findings by Mueller and others that in situations of high uncertainty, people typically associate the words “vomit”, “poison” and “agony” with creativity. What if this is linguistic association is about feelings, not just words?

After all, change is scary. Breakthrough ideas threaten current products, brands, companies, jobs, careers, identities. And if the first encounter with a truly breakthrough idea actually does make someone want to vomit (and believe me, I’ve seen this), then marshaling excuses is better than barfing all over the boardroom. The protective, face-saving function of hidden criteria is entirely understandable.

What are “hidden criteria”?

Criteria provide the basis for rational, accountable decisions. Explicit criteria are named out loud. You’ll find explicit criteria in:

  1. product or process specifications
  2. job descriptions
  3. employment and supplier contracts
  4. procurement tenders
  5. terms and conditions, privacy and other policies

In other words, if you work in an organization of any size, you’ve encountered explicit criteria often. Explicit criteria help teams gauge the resources needed and imagine ahead of time what “job-well-done” looks like. They underpin “clean logic”.

Hidden criteria are the opposite of explicit criteria. They hide in plain sight, until an activity or event teases them into salience. When they surface, hidden criteria take the form of verbal dismissals — “that’s rubbish” — or feints like “I don’t get it” (head shaking slowly). Sometimes they’re even fainter: blank stares, shrugged shoulders. Only rarely do hidden criteria get put into words.

(c) 2019. Kate Hammer. Alexander Calder's Triple Gong (1948) in the Picasso Museum, Paris.

Agendas and values

Sometimes, hidden criteria mask a hidden agenda. “We say we want X but, really, we want Y.” Other times, hidden criteria indicate there’s a value gap. Author and Social Work research professor Brené Brown, Ph.D. explains:

“The space between our practiced values (what we’re actually doing, thinking and feeling) and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think and feel) is the value gap” (177).

Brown also calls the value gap “the disengagement divide”. Once we pitched to a confection company who approached KILN. We demonstrated our framework. The person who had invited us in agreed, the framework achieved in the demo what we had said it would: bolder questions were formulated, easily. But the thing was: “our department doesn’t have permission to ask questions as brave as that.” That’s the disengagement divide in action.

The link between hidden criteria and values is clear, if unspoken. Hidden criteria often:

  • reinforce loyalty to an established hierarchy of perceived value, rather than creating real value outsiders would verify;
  • serve self-interest;
  • flatter the decision-makers, or buttress their self-esteem.

Recognizing hidden criteria

It’s not a surprise that hidden criteria surface in the face of novelty, it would be weird if they didn’t.

Telltale signs that a boss is mustering hidden criteria include:

  • s/he won’t give an idea airtime, won’t allow a meeting, presentation or pitch to be scheduled


  • s/he starts interrupting the presentation, usually with questions or comments that flatten the positive responses group members may be showing towards the novel concept


  • s/he uses body language and silence to show group members that their curiosity or interest in the novel concept isn’t welcome


  • s/he outright rejects any comment that would reframe or add context to the novel concept, from a team member brave enough to speak up

(c) 2019 Kate Hammer. Eggshells and flour on the pavement outside Gray’s Inn Walks 18 Feb 2019.

Building a matrix of support

As innovators, we have a choice. We can cave-in to the murky logic that hidden criteria try to impose. Or we can work within what psychologist Howard Gardner calls a “matrix of support”.

Here are four ways you can build a matrix of support, to counter murky logic’s corrosive effects.

  1. Share early and often, so that acceptance finding for a novel idea is happening ahead of any meeting where a boss might grow defensive.
  2. Stand in the boss’s shoes and from there, dream up all the rebuttals s/he might imagine. From there, you have the choice whether to equip your allies with the responses they’d find most helpful to shore up the case.
  3. Thank your boss for creating the creative space in the first place. Find the genuine contributions s/he has made to the breakthrough thinking (be that framing the commercial imperative, inviting new ideas, flexing business-as-usual workloads).
  4. Model the behaviour you seek. For example, use tools like PPCO to put some rationality back into idea evaluation.

In the matrix of support, “clean logic” may not govern decisions but at least it’s present.

Emotional scaffolding for creatives

One colleague said to me recently, “your brain is exquisite”. I’d just made someone very angry by making connections that violated hidden criteria. The conversation my colleague initiated with me became “a way for the creator to test that he or she is still sane, still understandable by a sympathetic member of the species” (Gardner 1993: 74).

You can be that sympathetic fellow human being. Let the disruptor know that something of what they propose (or are or do) makes sense to you. Vera John-Steiner identifies that creative collaboration flourishes thanks to “emotional scaffolding”:

“Emotional scaffolding is multifaceted; it includes the gift of confidence, and the leaning on that gift by creative people during periods of self-doubt and rejection by those in power. It creates a safety zone within which both support and constructive criticism […] are effectively practiced.”

Without the support or emotional scaffolding you provide, the highly creative thinker might otherwise abandon the situation.

It’s ironic that highly different thinkers are brought into organisations specifically because of that quality, but when they actually demonstrate radically different or potential breakthrough thinking, it is often roundly rejected. Then they quit and go somewhere they are appreciated.

At which point, everyone ends up impoverished.

(c) 2018 Kate Hammer. Inside Nomadic Gardens, Whitechapel 18 Sep.


Brown, Brene (2012). Daring Greatly. London: Penguin.

Gardner, Howard. (1993). Creating Minds; An anatomy of creativity seen through the lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York: Basic Books.

John-Steiner, Vera. (2000). Creative Collaboration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mueller, Jennifer S., Shimul Melwani, and Jack A. Goncalo. (2012). “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas” Psychological Science 23(1) 13–17. Via Gregg Fraley

Acknowledgement: I wrote this article in March 2014. The writing was possible thanks to the matrix of support provided by my Time To Think® teacher Ruth McCarthy and by Gregg Fraley and Indy Neogy, the best creative collaborators I could wish for.

The original article was published 16 March 2014 on Innovation Excellence.

Kate Hammer

Coach, mentor, teacher, throughline

As a coach and catalyst, I help people define and pursue a meaningful life. Barriers dissolve through conversations that reframe what's possible and what resources already exist in the system. I help people become better able to do hard things under pressure: with ease, imagination and joy. 20+ years in startups, zig-zagging through the commercial world with detours into NGO work and dipping into Higher Ed: making success, surviving failure and always bouncing back. I'll bring to our conversation street smarts, a wide lens and a big heart. How might I help you?


Go to the profile of Doug Garnett
over 2 years ago

Great post. Couple of thoughts. 

One of the fundamental drivers here is the essential reaction to risk — and the ways people vary in their reaction to situations where they believe there is risk. Innovators instinctively respond to risk different than most in any organization. Don't know if you've looked into the ISPI approach to understanding people. It sorts across a continuum from pioneers who break new ground to builders who make that ground fertile and highly productive. Builders approach risk far differently — and it's inherently the confrontation with risk (personal or company or both) which seems to cause the almost physical reaction you describe. 

I'd add one more idea to your list of ways innovators can help. There's a solid recent HBR article suggesting that innovators need to be able to start communication from "what will be the same" — emphasize realistic continuity. There always is continuity — most people will never see that truth when innovators talk about breaking things and moving fast. Those of us who innovate rely too often on these ideas as well as fear of future destruction to sell programs. The HBR article suggests this approach backfires almost always.

Go to the profile of Kate Hammer
over 2 years ago

Doug, wise words. Thank you. Decades of writing on innovation and invention could do well with a re-write from the risk aversion perspective. I'm reminded of a reworking of Everett Rogers' diffusion of innovation curve that Mark Earls (author of Herd and Copy, Copy, Copy) borrowed. Ping me on LinkedIn if you'd like me to dig it out of Evernote.

I think risk awareness gets a bad rap in writing about creativity and innovation. Perhaps this is the seed of an idea worth pursuing....thank you!