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With creativity considered among the most important employee skills for the future of work, one of the most pressing challenges for today’s leaders is figuring out how to cultivate and sustain creative talent. As creativity relies on diverse perspectives and viewpoints, organizations have risen to this challenge by continuously searching for ways to promote the exchange of ideas and information among employees. Such efforts have included re-organizing office spaces to increase collaboration and knowledge sharing, leveraging after-work activities to foster interpersonal interaction and altering hiring practices to cultivate a more diverse workforce.
Odds are, you too have thought of ways to encourage your employees to exchange ideas and perspectives with each other. But there are reasons to question whether your most creative employees are capitalizing on such initiatives.
Today’s employees have a vested interest in being seen as a fountain of creativity, as the ability to consistently deliver creative ideas is becoming essential to stand out from one’s peers, earn promotions and salary increases and remain relevant in an increasingly competitive global workforce. In light of such demands, it may be worthwhile to ask yourself: What anxieties do my creative employees face, and is it affecting how they exchange ideas and information with others?
It was this question that led my colleagues and I to conduct a series of studies – recently published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes – designed to shed some light on the subject. Here’s what we found.
Being creative is psychologically burdensome
Developing creative ideas is challenging. It necessitates employees to take risks and bend (or even break) the rules, which can sometimes lead to strained relationships with colleagues and resistance from supervisors. In addition, novel ideas are statistically infrequent, which means that many of the ideas employees develop are likely to be rejected. Yet, despite such risks, we found that creative employees not only want to be seen as a source of novel ideas, but the prospect of losing this image serves as an important source of anxiety. Specifically, we found that the more creative an employee is, the more psychological pressure they experience as they seek to maintain others’ perceptions of their creative ability.
How do creative employees manage such image concerns? Ironically, we found that they are likely to react in ways detrimental to the sustainability of their creativity, yet useful to the creativity of others.
Creative employees interact with others strategically to protect their image
Perhaps you’ve spent considerable time and resources building a diverse and inclusive workforce. The last thing you’d want is for your employees to fail to make use of the ecosystem of varying opinions and perspectives you’ve worked so hard to develop. Yet, this is precisely what we found happening among the most creative employees we studied. Specifically, we found that creative people protect their image by refraining from asking for needed help when generating creative ideas or solutions to problems.
Seeking help from others, whether out of a desire for a fresh perspective or need for unique information in another’s possession, is crucial for the development of novel ideas. But such behaviors can come with a cost, as it may signal incompetence or an inability to work independently. For creative employees, asking others for help may indicate their creative ability is waning or attributable to others’ talent rather than their own. This explains why the creative employees we studied managed their image concerns by refusing to seek help. Yet, our findings did unearth a silver lining. We found that while creative employees were unwilling to seek out the ideas or perspectives of others when working on their own ideas, they were more than happy to help others with their problems requiring a creative solution; likely because it provided them an opportunity to flex their creative prowess.
Assuming, like most managers, you’re interested in enhancing the creativity of your workforce, our research offers a cautionary tale. If creative employees are refusing to seek the help they need while also devoting their time and energy assisting others with their creative work, your creative stars may begin to fade over time.
What can be done to mitigate the psychological burden your creative employees experience and ensure they behave in ways that keep the creative flame burning?
As our results confirm, today’s employees are under a lot of pressure to continuously demonstrate their ability to develop creative ideas and solutions to problems. Though we focused on how employees’ reputation concerns shape how they interact with their colleagues, such anxieties can have much broader effects on employees’ work outcomes. For example, research suggests that concerns about maintaining one’s image at work can be emotionally taxing and detrimental to work productivity, as employees devote time and energy worrying about whether they are living up to the expectations of their peers and supervisors. Though the source of their anxieties is likely to vary, creative employees may be most likely to worry about their image if the feedback they are receiving on their creative accomplishments is irregular or inconsistent. So, one place to start would be to ensure that your employees feel that their creative contributions are valued and appreciated. Such recognition may provide the confidence boost needed to override their fear of asking for help.
In addition, inform employees of the reputational benefits that can come from asking others for help. Our results suggest that creative employees are likely to avoid seeking help out of fear of being seen as weak or “losing their edge”. Yet, such concerns are likely unwarranted. Research, for example, shows that rather than being seen as less competent, people who ask for help are often perceived as more competent. Seeking advice from others can convey a sense of wisdom and confidence, characteristics typically associated with competent and able people. Asking others for their opinions or suggestions can also be quite flattering for the person from whom the assistance is requested, which can further influence perceptions of the help seeker in positive ways. Thus, seeking assistance when needed not only helps employees continue to develop creative ideas, but it’s also a great way for them to ingratiate themselves with their colleagues.