Creativity Takes a Village: Employees Cannot Do It Alone

Evidence-based tips from the American Psychological Association convention

Posted Aug 16, 2019

A symposium at the just-wrapped-up annual convention of the American Psychological Association provided powerful tips for leaders on how to maximize organizational creativity. Leaders should be kept awake at night by thoughts of how to make their employees and organizations more creative to survive in the changing economy. Indeed, the World Economic Forum lists complex problem solving and creativity as two of the top 10 skills needed to survive the rise of automation.

The proverbial million-dollar question is how can organizations attain creativity. The answer is that employee creativity is not only about their individual skills. Rather, creativity takes individual skill, productive work relationships, especially with immediate supervisors, and larger organizational support influenced by the senior leadership.

Creativity depends on how employees think

Most creativity research addresses how people come up with ideas, to the exclusion of other aspects of creative thinking. Before coming up with ideas, people have to identify problems and consider how to think of them. And after they come up with ideas, they have to evaluate them and decide on the best ones. The process of creative thinking can be quite messy, with different thinking tasks happening at the same time or in counterintuitive orders.

Roni Reiter-Palmon conducted a study examining the effects of going back to earlier parts of creative thinking on the creativity of final ideas. She studied 76 three-person teams, where some were asked only to come up with ideas to solve a real-life problem; some were asked to spend time first on problem construction (considering the problem from different perspectives) and then idea generation; some were asked to first generate ideas and then revise them; and some were instructed to work on problem construction, idea generation, and revision.

The results showed that both problem construction and idea revision increased the feasibility and creativity of solutions.

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle
Employees' feelings about work when they have highly emotionally intelligent supervisors
Source: Zorana Ivcevic Pringle

Creativity depends on relationships

Supervisors make or break one’s workplace experience. At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we collaborated with the Faas Foundation on a survey of a nationally representative sample of close to 15,000 workers across the U.S. We asked employees about their supervisors, as well as their opportunities to grow at work, their feelings about their work, and their creativity at work.

The results showed that when employees describe their supervisors as emotionally intelligent, they indicate having more opportunities to grow, learn, and advance at work, they feel more positively about their jobs, and ultimately show more creativity and innovation in what they do.

What do these emotionally intelligent supervisors do?

First, they are good at reading employees’ emotions, such as realizing when someone is dissatisfied at work or when they are upset about a decision. Second, they help employees channel their feelings into productive change by inspiring enthusiasm or by helping employees approach their frustrations as problems to be solved. Third, they understand why employees become upset or how different decisions (in a work unit or broader organization) affect how employees feel at work. Finally, they are able to manage their own emotions, as well as help employees when they are upset or frustrated at work.

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle
Employees' feelings about work when they have low emotionally intelligent supervisors
Source: Zorana Ivcevic Pringle

The support supervisors provide, by acknowledging employee feelings and by helping manage their feelings, creates a more positive work climate. Employees’ descriptions of their feelings at work are dramatically different if they have supervisors who act in emotionally intelligent ways.

The quality of relationships spills into feelings about employees’ duties and tasks, and that in turn affects creativity and innovation in what they accomplish.

Creativity depends on unbiased organizational support

Extensive research shows that men and women do not differ in their creative ability. However, people tend to think that men are more creative than women.

For example, Aleksandra Luksyte, Kerrie Unsworth, and Derek Avery studied how innovation at work predicts performance evaluations. For men, greater innovation predicted positive performance evaluations, but this was not the case for women. Because women are not expected to be as innovative as men, when they are, supervisors can discount it in their evaluations.

How does organizational support for creativity affect employees? In an economy-wide study, researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, lead by Crista Taylor, found that women had less support for creativity, which in turn reduced their creativity at work.

Because the study included workers across all industry sectors, we were able to examine how the percent of women in a particular industry affects creativity at work. Support for women is rather consistently low in all industries, but men tend to feel a lack of support for creativity largely if they work in female-dominated industries.

Creativity depends on training

We have all heard comments that creativity is born, not learned. Science has a wonderful way of challenging preconceptions.

Ginamarie Scott, Lyle Leritz, and Michael Mumford conducted the first meta-analysis of creativity training programs in 2004. Meta-analyses are powerful statistical techniques that examine the results of many studies to see the strength of the observed effects. Across 70 studies, in children and professional adults alike, they found that training improves abilities to creatively solve problems and come up with many and original ideas.

Specifically looking at studies of adults, Alex McKay presented a new meta-analysis of the effects of creativity training on creative attitudes and behavior. Creativity attitudes build a mindset necessary for creativity to happen, such as valuing new ideas, watching out for biases against original or challenging ideas, and trusting that one is capable to think creatively.

After analyzing 82 studies, the results showed that creativity attitudes and behavior indeed benefit from training. Moreover, it seems that when teams are trained, there are benefits for both team and individual creativity, but when individuals only are trained, the benefits might not generalize to team creativity.

So how to maximize creativity in the workplace? The latest research offers four evidence-based tips:

1. Allow time for constructing problems and revising ideas. 

Spending more time thinking about the problem from different perspectives, considering multiple potential solutions, and revisiting and revising already-generated ideas increases the creativity of the solution. Individuals who strive for creativity, as well as leaders and organizations aiming to promote creativity, should plan for time for such non-linear and time-consuming thinking.

Changing one’s ideas is not a sign of poor planning, but a sign of creative thinking.

2. Enable supervisors to create an emotional climate for creativity. 

Supervisors who act in emotionally intelligent ways do not insist on positivity only and invite feedback on what can be improved at work. Because they acknowledge unpleasant feelings, employees do not have to hide them (thus eliminating a source of stress at work). Because they create opportunities for employees to contribute to work processes and create change, they make it possible for employees to acquire new skills and advance in their jobs.

This experience of a challenge at work (as opposed to the perception of threat for one’s reputation) is a strong motivator for creativity.

3. Reduce biases in support of creativity. 

Leaders are aware that their explicit decisions affect employee behavior, but might be less aware that the implicit messages they send also affect employees’ work. How leaders communicate what they value in work performance and what they are willing to support will have important consequences, and the consequences might differ across various groups of employees (e.g., women, underrepresented groups).

Knowing this potential pitfall, leaders should examine how they assign tasks and roles, as well as how they evaluate employee performance.     

4. Train creativity for teams. 

Training teams increases the creativity of individuals in these teams, but training individuals will likely not generalize to the creativity of teams. When teams are trained, they have to work not only on how each team member thinks but also on how they relate to each other, and how they make each other feel.

By trying these interactions in training, they will be better equipped to support each other and create conditions for meaningful creativity on the actual work tasks.

References

Luksyte, A., Unsworth, K. L., & Avery, D. R. (2017). Innovative work behavior and sex-based stereotypes: Examining sex differences in perceptions and evaluations of innovative work behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 1–14. doi:10.1002/job.2219

Scott, G., Leritz, L. E., & Mumford, M. D. (2004). The effectiveness of creativity training: A quantitative review. Creativity Research Journal, 16(4), 361-388. doi:10.1207/s15326934crj1604_1