from R&D Innovator Volume 3, Number 8
Delicate Balance in Managing for Creativity
Amabile, originally a chemist, is professor of psychology at
Brandeis University, studying how social environments influence
problem-solving creativity. She consults and conducts workshops on the R&D work
publications include The
Social Psychology of Creativity (Springer-Verlag, New York,
1983) and Growing Up
Creative (Crown, New York, 1989).
the past 18 years, I’ve been studying the creative process and
the ways it’s influenced by the work environment.
One of my research techniques is to ask R&D scientists
to describe a "high-creativity" and
"low-creativity" event from their experience.
I then analyze the transcripts of the interviews, looking
for common threads and distinctions.
I talked to Scientist A, who had supervised a low-creativity
discovery, and Scientist B, who had overseen a high-creativity
discovery, I was struck by the similarity between the stories.
The technical problems, project team composition, and
available resources were quite comparable.
Although both scientists spoke about goal-setting, there
was a subtle difference. Scientist
A remarked, “Our project suffered because goals weren’t being
set; it’s hard to work without certain goals in mind. The supervisor wasn’t good at making decisions.”
By contrast, Scientist B said, “As the manager of this
successful project, I gave the people involved a clear idea of
what the end product was going to be.
I attempted to get each person involved in elements within
their expertise, and I let people set their own goals and manage
their own business.”
first blush, it appears that the project managers in both
of these stories “backed off” and left much of the
decision-making to the team members. In fact, we saw this practice repeatedly in both the high-
and low-creativity stories from the 120 R&D employees who
participated in the study. What
differed? The supervisors set overall strategic project goals very
clearly in most high-creativity events.
operational goal setting wasn’t the only common factor:
evaluation, rewards, and pressure all appeared in both the
successful and unsuccessful events.
But as I delved deeper, I discovered clear differences in
the way each of these
factors was used in project management.
Key: Motivation from Within
research I have undertaken with my colleagues and students started
with the assumption that all individuals are capable of creative
behavior. Even though
certain thinking styles, personality styles, and educational
experiences provide some people with greater “creative
resources” than others, everyone’s creative potential can be
stimulated or stunted by the work environment.
began with controlled laboratory experiments, which showed that
creativity can be undermined by a focus on external evaluation,
surveillance, contract-for-reward, win-lose competition, or
restricted choice. This
research led to the intrinsic
motivation principle of creativity:
people are most creative when they feel motivated primarily
by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and personal challenge
of the work itself—not by external pressures.
In short, while intrinsic motivation is conducive to
creativity, extrinsic motivation is detrimental to it.
we moved our research from the psychology lab to the workplace, we
discovered some complicating factors. In our first major study (described above) our content
analysis of the high-creativity stories and the low-creativity
stories showed that intrinsic
motivators (such as challenging work and a sense of autonomy)
were indeed quite common in the high-creativity events and notably
absent in the low-creativity events.
In the latter gropu, by contrast, certain extrinsic
motivators (such as threatening evaluation, competition, or
arbitrary time pressure) were abundant.
did not expect to see extrinsic motivators in the high-creativity
in those stories, certain
extrinsic motivators were actually more common.
These motivators included reward and recognition for
creative work, informative work evaluation, and a sense of
meaningful urgency. In
examining these motivators, and the overall patterns of work
environments that support or inhibit creativity, we arrived at
four balance factors that seem important in project-team management.
I believe that striking the appropriate balance can
contribute to the creativity of project team members and,
ultimately, to successful innovation across the organization.
I have indicated, goal-setting is important—project creativity
suffers if goals are too loose at the strategic level, or too
tight at the day-to-day operational level.
Ideally, project managers can find a balance point that
combines loose and tight control.
At the outset, articulate a clear strategic vision and
overall goal for the project; then allow the team members as much
autonomy as possible in deciding how to meet the goal.
might be expected from our earlier experiments, the low-creativity
stories typically showed much evaluation pressure; people were
concerned about overly critical reactions to their ideas.
As one interviewee said, “Part of the problem was that
everyone was looking for a breakthrough.
Expectations were too high.
Upper management was very involved in the work and would
constantly ask for results.”
the other hand, we also found an absence of evaluation and feedback in many of the low-creativity
stories. In these
situations, the team members believed no one knew or cared what
they were doing.
crucial balance seems to involve a great deal of frequent,
work-focused evaluation and truly informative, constructive,
these evaluation sessions should involve peers (as well as
supervisors) in discussing the work.
We saw this pattern frequently in the high-creativity
stories: “We had a
mutual respect for each other’s abilities and a willingness to
listen but not hang on someone’s idea;” or “Well, that’s a
good idea, but here are some problems....”
some of the low-creativity stories, our interviewees felt that
material rewards had been dangled before them like carrots on a
stick. As could be
predicted from the intrinsic motivation principle of creativity,
this led them to feel externally controlled and likely reduced
their creativity. Yet many of the low-creativity stories were marked by an absence
of reward and recognition for good work.
in many of the high-creativity stories, project team members knew
they would be rewarded for doing well—even though these rewards
rarely took the form of large monetary payments:
“Part of the reward is having your manager listen to what
you’ve done. Having
access to your supervisors increases internal motivation, so
managers should be available on an informal basis.”
“It was good to hear management say, ‘You made a good
discovery this month, and we are going to show it to top
management, and you are going to make the presentation.’
The pat on the back, the recognition, felt good.”
creativity is best fostered when R&D employees know that
rewards and recognition will follow from good, creative
efforts—without being promised specific rewards for specific
forms of external pressure appeared in the low-creativity stories,
primarily time and competitive pressure:
“There was pressure to get the product produced quickly.
It was a long-range product, but this is a short-range
company.” “We had
two groups trying to achieve the same thing.
This fostered competition.
It became a win-lose situation, and we all ended up
losing.” Yet in
some of the low-creativity stories, there was a complete absence
of urgency. And
pressures also appeared in the high-creativity stories.
What’s going on?
the meaning (or source) of the pressure, and its intensity, are
time and competitive pressure in the low-creativity stories were
seen as arbitrary; no one knew exactly why a project had to be
completed in only two months, or why three teams were in direct,
win-lose competition on one project.
In the high-creativity stories, the pressure usually arose
from a realistic sense of urgency; the organization or society at
large desperately needed a solution to the problem.
of the meaning of the pressure, however, creativity is impossible
under extreme pressure--after a certain point, there is simply no
time for trying unorthodox approaches.
still believe, on the basis of all our experimental and
non-experimental evidence, that intrinsic motivation is necessary
for high levels of creativity.
Yet certain forms of extrinsic motivation may also heighten
creativity: reward for good work; constructive, informative evaluation;
control in the form of clear strategic goals; and pressure that
reflects a real need for a solution to an important problem.
forms of extrinsic motivation are likely to harm creativity:
harsh negative evaluation, frequent surveillance, win-lose
competition between individuals and teams, rewards that work as
control mechanisms, tight control of the work itself, and extreme
or arbitrary time pressure.
R&D managers can learn the varieties of human motivation and
the subtle ways in which the work environment impacts motivation,
they will have a head start toward the crucial balance that
encourages the highest levels of creativity.