Caring Begets Creativity

February 1, 2010 / General /

By Ryan Quinn

A little over a month ago, as I finished teaching a session of a training program for a Fortune 500 company, one of the executives in the program came up to me to share some information with me. He said that he was responsible for innovation in his company, and he was struggling. He told me about a survey that had been conducted in his company. In short, the survey told them that they had no creative people in their company anymore. They had squelched people’s creativity, or driven them out of the organization. He was working hard to address that situation.

I have felt like I have had my creativity squelched out of me before. When that happens at work, it is usually because I feel pressured or stressed by deadlines, career development or other concerns. When it happens at home, it usually happens because I feel frustrated or overwhlemed by the challenges of rearing four children. It can be a dismal experience.

Re-awakening Creativity

Organizational scholars have conducted significant research on the topic of creativity. Just this morning I ran across a new study, conducted by Adam Grant, a colleague of ours whose work I mentioned in a previous entry, and James Berry. These scholars tackled an interesting question in the research on creativity. They observed that many scholars argue that people are more creative when they find their work to be intrinsically motivating–meaning that their work is fun or interesting for its own sake, and not just because of the rewards they get for doing the work. They also observed, however, that research on this topic is mixed: sometimes intrinsic motivation leads to creativity, but sometimes it does not. They wanted to find out what makes the difference.

Grant and Berry proposed that intrinsically motivated employees are more likely to generate creative outcomes if they are also motivated by desires to help others. If people have an intrinsic interest in their work, then they are likely to look for ideas that are novel because they are curious and interested in learning how to engage the activity in new and interesting ways. But if people also have a desire to help others, then they will look for ideas that are useful as well as novel.

Grant and Berry tested this idea with security force operators, water treatment facility employees, and in an experiment with undergraduate students. In each case, they found that people were, in fact, more creative when they wanted to help others and enjoyed their work than they were when they simply enjoyed their work. Those who wanted to help others thought about their work from others’ points of view, and tried to craft novel solutions that would be useful to those others.

Personal Application

The findings in Grant and Berry’s study seem useful to me in light of the executive’s observation that his company had squelched the creativity out of their people. As I thought about this, I remembered when I was recovering from surgery, my wife was overwhelemed and exhausted, and our little children were going crazy tearing the house apart. I wondered how we could possibly survive this situation. Then, suddenly, my wife had a burst of creativity. She created a “clean-up game” on the spot, and soon had the kids laughing and playing while the house was cleaned and restored to sanity.

As I wondered how she did this, I remembered a time a few weeks ago when I was in an unhappy funk and had started to bring others down with me. I wanted to change, but I couldn’t seem to make myself do so. I tried all kinds of things. But the thing that finally worked was thinking about others. I thought about what my family wanted and needed. I thought about what people in the community that we try to serve and some of our relatives needed. And as I focused less on myself and more on others, my funk went away and I was able to re-engage my family happily and creatively.

Now that I know to look for this pattern, I see it at work as well as at home. If you want to be more creative, care a little bit more about others, and a little less about yourself.