As a journalist and editor, my creativity was most stagnant when I felt like a fraud.photo of Sam Ragland This was especially true when the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Liz Balmaseda asked to join my new digital “start-up” in the legacy Palm Beach Post newsroom. How would I lead this woman, edit and challenge her when I just wanted to sit in her shine and watch her work? 

When Liz asked me to lead her, she shared that great editors give their people wings. All these years later, when I think about a news leader’s mission, I think about Liz and the power leaders have to spark curiosity and give their team the freedom to be creative in small, daily interactions through deliberate listening and questioning of our team members, their lives, stories and ideas. For me, this looked like holding meetings in front of a giant coloring poster I bought at the Boca Museum of Art. It sounded like my reporters leading their own “in what ways might we” brainstorming sessions to elevate their beats. It manifested in niche newsletters on food, travel and Florida history, and in flexing their production chops in docu-style video storytelling. 

Creativity is good for the group, and today, I want to encourage even tired, uninspired news leaders to cut through the monotony of the status quo and infuse a level of creativity into their daily flow.  

THE CHALLENGE

The busyness of the news day limits your ability to respond creatively. You don’t see yourself as a creative person or don’t think it’s your job to be innovative. Perhaps you feel that there’s too much risk and not enough guaranteed reward in doing things differently. 

One of the things that can exacerbate burnout is doing the same thing over and over, finding yourself caught in a work cycle that yields no future returns or growth opportunities. This is why I like the idea of infusing creativity into the culture of news teams. If you’re feeling burned out and disempowered in your work, then the dimension most at play in your cycle of chronic stress to burnout could be cynicism. To combat that cloud of negativity and decrease that mental distance from the work, I encourage you to try this week’s exercise and consider these four questions. 

THE ASSIGNMENT

Too many of our day-to-day touchpoints can feel transactional and mundane. Your challenge this week is to upend that. To activate your curiosity and catalyze your creativity, add these questions to your leadership toolkit. To put them into practice, I want you to focus on one question a day, and ask it whenever appropriate as often as possible through that day. Your question-a-day focus should extend beyond your work into your life as a parent, partner, sibling and friend. Why? Because leading with relational and transformational empathy, trust and collaboration doesn’t just impact your well-being at work, it impacts your well-being in life. Download the template here.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Day 1: How can I be helpful?

  • Understanding it: Too often leaders put the undue burden on themselves of having all the answers, but instead, you should ask yourself, “How can I be helpful?” Being helpful allows you to listen more, respond better and think outside the box. If you can be anything at all, for yourself, your team, your organization and the well-being of each, be helpful. 
  • Using it: Content meetings are great for this question, especially for those journalists in the product and engagement spaces. But this question is also useful when direct reports come to you with problems sans solutions; it gives them agency and control and helps you understand how to support them. 

Day 2: What would it take?

  • Understanding it: This is a ball-in-your-court question. It conveys respect and can unearth important information that you don’t know. It can also move a conversation from confrontation to collaboration. Skip the “why not?” complaint and instead ask: What would it take?
  • Using it: This question is perfect for moving an idea into action — especially when you find stakeholders are contributing roadblocks instead of momentum. It’s also a game-changer when working across roles and with people who may have different or competing interests. 

Day 3: Tell me more?

  • Understanding it: When “no” is your default, “can you tell me more” is your new friend. Naysayers have their time and place, but when our well-being is on the edge, too many quick nos can push us over the edge or bring our value into question. 
  • Using it: This request is a go-to when navigating conflict and difficult conversations. But it’s also helpful in pitch meetings and cross-departmental collaborations. It makes space, encourages details and models curiosity — all traits of people-centered leaders. 

Day 4: What’s your North Star here?

  • Understanding it: Tapping into creative ideas and solutions comes easier when we go beyond organizational goals and seek to understand someone’s motivation. This question can help you coach for creative solutions and bring attention to the “why” instead of the “how.”
  • Using it: Especially effective in 1:1s with direct reports, this question can deepen day-to-day understanding as well as future planning and professional development. It’s also effective with extroverted leaders who often say-think-do as it can draw them back into deeper consideration of an off-the-cuff idea. 

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You also might be interested in:

  • This is a column on how to measure well-being for yourself and your organization. By the end, you’ll have a clear direction and quantitative ways to chart a healthy path forward for your journalists.

  • Experts define moral injury as the suffering that comes from witnessing, perpetrating or failing to prevent events that violate one’s own deeply held moral beliefs and values. It is not classified as a mental illness, but it can lead to depression, substance abuse or burnout, which is one reason news managers need to understand the phenomenon of moral injury — and ways to address it or head it off.

  • For many newsrooms, changing the systems that protect unhealthy culture could be a few sustained decisions away from reality.