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3 Scientific Truths About The Role Of Creativity In The Workplace

creativity in the workplace

Creativity is a valued trait. Companies want to find employees that can apply creative thinking to solve business problems as much as employees want to work for companies that allow them to be creative in their roles. Creativity in the workplace is something most companies would say they are looking for.

But what does the latest scientific research say about the role of creativity in the workplace and our careers? Here are three new insights that may challenge the way we view creativity at work.

1. Creative breakthroughs are the result of years of practice, not moments of inspiration

Many people believe that creativity is something you either have or you don’t. Emerging research, however, suggests that this belief is as wrong as it is self-defeating. Like anything, creativity is a skill that needs to be developed; more time, effort, and practice yields more creative breakthroughs.

“Creative ideas are typically based on remembered information that is combined in new ways,” state the authors of a new research paper on creativity, led by Mathias Benedek of the University of Graz in Austria. “A creative breakthrough in a domain typically requires more than ten years of deliberate practice and work.”

This view is consistent with other research showing that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an “expert” in a given domain — whether that’s learning a new job, a new sport, or engaging in any other new pursuit.

However, according to Benedek’s research, more than 60% of people fail to realize that creative breakthroughs are typically achieved after years of practice and hard work. Instead, people are more likely to believe that creativity comes from Eureka-like moments of which we have little or no control over.

And, people endorse other counterproductive myths about creativity, such as the idea that creativity cannot be measured, that creativity is a rare gift, and that exceptional creativity is usually accompanied by mental health disorders.

“Misbeliefs about creativity can have serious practical consequences,” say Benedek and his team of researchers. “Attributing creativity to genius makes people think that their creativity is fixed and cannot be developed. Accurate knowledge about the development and conditions of creativity thus can be considered crucial to effectively support the realization of creative potential.”

2. Creative people do well with confusing or ambiguous job tasks

While we can all learn to be more creative and express more creativity in the workplace, especially with the right attitude, it is also true that some personality types are naturally more creativity than others. For instance, studies have shown that people who score high on the trait of “openness” — that is, having an active imagination, being attentive to one’s inner feelings, having a preference for variety, and possessing natural intellectual curiosity — tend to be more creative.

But that’s not the whole story. Creative personalities may also have an advantage in navigating complex or ambiguous job tasks. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who scored high on the personality dimension of openness were more likely to respond positively to the emotion of confusion — using it as a challenge or a call to action rather than a cue to disengage or ignore a problem.

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers asked a group of participants to evaluate a series of paintings. Some of the paintings were abstract and/or confusing while others were straightforward. They found that people high on the personality dimension of openness were significantly more likely to be interested in works of art that evoked a certain degree of confusion. This led these individuals to spend more time trying to decipher the meaning of the ambiguous works of art.

The researchers replicated this finding in a complex problem-solving task and in a self-selected learning situation, showing that creative individuals may exhibit more interest and perseverance when confronted with complex work problems.

3. Creative people have a penchant for deception

Creativity in the workplace also has its downsides. One downside, according to a recent article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, is that highly creative people are more likely to act unethically in hypothetical work scenarios. And, a recent meta-analysis of 36 research papers measuring the association between creativity and unethicality found the two traits to be positively related to one another — that is, the more creative someone is, the more likely they are to engage in unethical or deceptive behaviors.

“Assuming that someone who is highly creative will probably be unethical goes beyond what we are suggesting,” says the lead author of the research, Dr. Ke Michael Mai, of South Korea’s SKK Graduate School of Business. “We also don’t want to suggest that creativity in organizations is a bad thing or that it should be avoided. Perhaps a better way of approaching our findings is to recognize that most positive attributes, such as creativity, can also have some potential drawbacks. By shedding light on this, we hope to encourage all the positives associated with creativity while alerting individuals about potential issues to recognize and avoid.”

About the Author

Mark Travers, Ph.D., is an American psychologist with degrees from Cornell University and the University of Colorado Boulder. He can be reached at travers.mark@gmail.com.