Management Mistakes Squelch Employee Innovation

Everyone wants their organizations to be more creative — so why is it so hard to actually get workers to think outside the box?

According to the results of an experiment reported earlier this year, a big part of the problem is that even well-intentioned managers unwittingly squelch the very creativity that they seek to unleash.

Christina E. Shalley, associate professor of organizational behavior at Georgia Institute of Technology's DuPree College of Management, together with Ph.D. candidate Jill E. Perry-Smith, designed a simple but powerful experiment that isolates two anti-creative managerial behaviors — and demonstrates how to encourage creativity.

Reported in the January 2001 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, the study demonstrates that how people are treated at work has a huge impact on their creativity in that setting — regardless of their native inventiveness. In particular, the researchers found two factors strongly inhibited freedom of thought: expecting highly judgmental evaluations and following a routine example. Conversely, people show much more flair when they look forward to supportive, instructive follow-up, and when given creative examples to spark their imagination.

The experiment invited 81 undergraduate students to participate in a research study they were vaguely told dealt with management problem solving. It began with a brief questionnaire designed to measure innate levels of creativity (for example, to what extent they connected diverse ideas). The students were then given an in-basket exercise —asking for responses to a series of clever memos — that required creatively addressing human-resource problems in a hypothetical steel company.

Half the participants were told in no uncertain terms that their creativity would be judged in great detail by tough, knowledgeable, human-resource experts. Responses would be scored, comparisons would be made and results would be tabulated.

The other half were told that HR experts would review the responses and that they would share with the students what they liked about the answers. They might also suggest possible alternatives or improvements, all in the spirit of learning.

In other words, half the students expected a rigorous grilling, while the other half looked forward to learning and encouragement. You can guess the results: The second group came up with much more inventive solutions, as judged by a panel of creativity experts using a carefully crafted seven-point scale.

The experiment also addressed the question of encouraging or discouraging creativity by example.

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