Organization leaders often overlook a crucial tool for success: the creativity of their own employees. Creative workers, by definition, build novel and useful products and methods. Their creativity plays an essential role in the success of their organizations, giving leaders new perspective and fashioning familiar products, processes and materials into something better.
Yet workplace creativity means more than doing an old job in a new way. More often, it is a sort of alchemy, in which employees mix previously unrelated materials into something unprecedented, or adapt methods formerly used in one kind of task to enhance performance in another.
While scholars have long viewed work as a creative endeavor, the role of employee creativity in contemporary organizations has only recently emerged as an area of formal research. So far, that research has focused on understanding the factors that fuel imagination and originality in employees. For scholars and managers alike, workplace creativity poses a fundamental paradox. On the one hand, organizations depend on standardized practices to ensure efficient operations. On the other, these very systems produce the unintended consequence of shutting down worker originality and innovation. While standardized practice regularizes performances, in other words, it also stifles the creativity that can create excellence.
But research is uncovering some surprising new ways for managers to think about workplace creativity. Supervisors, for example, may assume unhappy employees are unproductive. In fact, under the right type of leadership, employee frustration can be channeled into creative problem solving. If an organization’s leaders are attuned to the negative mood of an employee, they can help direct dissatisfaction towards improving the workplace.
Research has shown that employees respond in several ways to job dissatisfaction. They can leave the job, they can remain loyal but dissatisfied or they can neglect their work. But there’s another, less intuitive possibility: properly managed, the dissatisfied worker can be a source of positive innovation.
That’s because a dissatisfied worker isn’t necessarily bad for an organization. This kind of unhappiness with the status quo can act as a catalyst for change. Rather than assuming that worker unhappiness will lead to turnover, managers should know it can actually be an opportunity for better creative performance.
For instance, a study of helicopter manufacturing employees discovered that employees who reported the strongest negative moods also experienced the highest levels of creativity. The workers who expressed a strong awareness of their own emotions were best able use their negative moods to move into a creative state.
The key is a leader’s reaction to these workers. In companies where creativity is actively nurtured, a dissatisfied employee can channel observations of systemic flaws into proposals for a better way to do business. In companies that don’t encourage creativity, the same employee often simply opts out, expressing unhappiness through decreased work. A bit counterintuitively, managers should make sure to support employee creativity during times of organizational stress. Organizations need creative thinking more than ever during financial or other challenges, but that’s exactly when employers are more likely to clamp down and discourage creative innovation.
Leaders can play a central role in promoting individual creativity if they offer freedom, developmental feedback and model empowering behavior are essential. One of an employer’s most important strategies, our research shows, is refraining from overly close monitoring. When employees feel they are being watched and controlled, they may fear exploring new ideas. In contrast to close monitoring, developmental feedback is beneficial. Offering specific information about performance along with personalized encouragement helps to build a culture of creativity.
Organization leaders can empower employees by expressing confidence in their abilities, emphasizing the importance of their work, involving them in decision-making and reducing or removing bureaucratic constraints that limit their ability to innovate. Interestingly, employees who are risk averse often move toward more creative behaviors when they develop trust in a supervisor.
In addition to individual creativity, team creativity is also a catalyst for organizational success. That’s particularly true in the R&D sector but, until recently, few studies focused on team creativity. Looking at the way teams find and develop new ideas, however, we found that diversity can be some of the most powerful influences on team creativity. This is logical: a strong workplace melds components to build something new, adapting familiar concepts to different contexts or fields, so diverse reference points — educational or otherwise — deepen the pool of creative resources from which a work team can draw inspiration.
But managers need to recognize that team diversity also may lead to conflict — and know how to prevent it. Leadership appears to be the key factor here. When a leader encourages strong team identification, the members are more likely to share and debate ideas constructively. If a leader fails to create that cohesion, however, team members from diverse educational backgrounds may shrink from voicing their ideas to the group out of fear or embarrassment.
A transformational leader can counteract this by providing inspiration and motivation, acting as a role model and offering intellectual stimulation. By actively showing consideration towards all individuals on a team, an employer can leverage that collective knowledge and encourage exciting collaborations.
Finally, to feed employee creativity, leaders must also look to their own fears. While worker creativity is a key part of an organization’s success, many supervisors actively discourage it or, at best, do little to promote it. Often, this is because employers view disruption of standard operating procedures as a threat to effectiveness. This fear is valid in some cases, as employee creativity is not always good: a worker in a nuclear power plant, for example, should not be directing his creative energies toward altering safety procedures.
Part of a leader’s role, in other words, is to direct employees’ creative energies in positive, practical ways for the good of the organization. The effort is worth it. By hitting the right notes of encouragement, freedom and diversity, an organization leader can transform employee dissatisfaction, build visionary teams and create a workplace in which employees know their best ideas are valued.
Jing Zhou is Houston Endowment Professor of Management, and Director for Asian Management Research and Education at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University.
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