How can organizations motivate employees towards creativity?

Way back in 1960, McGregor put forth “Theory Y” against “Theory X” based on different assumptions about human motivation. The conventional Theory X assumes employees are fundamentally passive and indolent and therefore management should direct employee efforts. Theory Y assumes employees are already motivated towards development and responsibility – management’s task is to facilitate them to achieve their goals best by directing their efforts towards organizational objectives. Years later, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, most organizations still operate on Theory X. I have often wondered why. Innovation happens on the bedrock of employee creativity. Research indicates that organizational creativity leads to financial returns, employee value, competitive advantage and growth in organizational capabilities. Organizational innovation requires creative people – and they need to be motivated towards creativity. It is not capability but motivational orientation that decides what a creative individual will actually do in a given situation.
Discussed below are key motivational factors that impact employee creativity, based on years of scientific research in the subject. While the focus is on organizations, it is applicable in any context – education, family, parenting, communities – wherever creativity is desired.
Rewards: Reward is the most commonly used motivator. Research indicates that rewards, inappropriately used, can kill intrinsic motivation and creativity. While task non-contingent (not for a specific task/ activity) and task-contingent (for a task/ activity) rewards do not undermine intrinsic motivation and creativity, performance-contingent (on performance goals) and completion-contingent rewards (on task completion) significantly undermine it, perhaps on account of the controlling component. When the controlling aspects are minimized and competence cues are enhanced, these rewards can maintain or enhance intrinsic motivation. Similarly, pay can have modest effect on innovative work behaviours. Using rewards for creativity calls for a nuanced understanding on its what (kind of reward), how (rewards are distributed) and why (the types of behaviours rewarded).
Job Design: The way jobs are structured effects creativity – an optimal match of skill and challenge is key. A state of flow (a term by Csikszentmihalyi) is achieved when people engage in challenging tasks to their maximum ability – one gives one’s best and feels rewarded by the activity itself. Research indicates that challenge, autonomy and complexity in the job lead to focused attention and engagement. These give people excitement and a powerful sense of pleasure – allowing them to seek questions they really want to pursue, an essential ingredient for creative achievements. Many studies support this view – that regulation through choice is characterized by flexibility and the absence of pressure. By contrast, being controlled is characterized by rigidity and the experience of having to do what one is doing.
Group Dynamics: Creativity in organizations is a collective process of combining the knowledge, abilities and skills of a diverse set of people. For organizational creativity, moments of collective creativity are necessary. Organizational, social and other-focused psychological processes play important roles in motivating collective creativity. Prosocial motivation (focused on benefitting others) enables adopting others’ viewpoints to understand their preferences, values and needs. Amabile and Kramer identified the nourishment factor in team creativity – ways of providing interpersonal support, such as encouragement, respect and collegiality. These findings question the impact of rampant and long-term use of competition on creative thinking and innovation. The collective nature of organizational creativity is nurtured through collaboration and development of its social, cognitive and affective dimensions.
Leadership: Like a conductor of an orchestra, leadership plays an integrating role. Leaders create the symphony of these motivators and facilitate creative efforts by individuals and teams. They impact the creation of roles, work environments, work relationships and human resource practices like rewards, goals and evaluations. Leaders impact psychological empowerment, which influences both intrinsic motivation and creative process engagement. Transformational leadership, a key concept in creative leadership, has a positive relationship to employee creativity. It involves charismatic role modelling, individualized consideration, inspirational motivation, and intellectual stimulation. This integrative style of leadership anchors all the motivational factors, orchestrating expertise, people, and relationships to bring new ideas into being.
Goal setting, time availability, resource design and types of evaluations are other important factors that promote creativity. Driving creative behaviour requires a fine balance of multiple elements – individual and group motivations, extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, structure and flexibility, resource availability and creative constraints. None of the mechanisms are categorically negative or positive for creativity – but through deeper understanding and right usage, each can become powerful motivators. A word of caution is to note that not all roles require high creativity, and the conventional carrot-and-stick approach may have its appropriate uses. The extent of creativity needed should dictate the design of motivational factors. Driving creativity and reaping its benefits calls for a balanced application of these factors, commitment and a long-term outlook.
Originally published in linkedin.
Based on a paper by me published in ‘Big Questions in Creativity 2016’, ICSC Press, Buffalo NY.

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