ILR research: Workers selling their creativity short

Individuals believe their creativity wanes over time, according to Brian Lucas, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the ILR School.

But in a recently published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lucas claims that people’s creativity, on the whole, remains constant – or actually improves – as they work on projects.

Lucas’ study, “The Creative Cliff Illusion,” published Aug. 18. His co-author is Loran F. Nordgren, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

“In today’s economy, most work requires some amount of creativity and problem-solving,” Lucas said. “Even the most average worker at the most boring widget factory generates creative solutions when faced with equipment malfunctions, logistical errors, grumpy clients, problematic employees and initiatives to cut costs or increase safety.

“Given this,” he said, “it is important for workers to understand how their ability to generate ideas unfolds over time. This knowledge allows them to make informed decisions about how much time and effort to invest into creative work – to keep going when there are creative ideas left in the tank and to stop when they have truly exhausted their ideas.”

The authors said there is a “fundamental disconnect between people’s beliefs and the reality of how creativity emerges over time.” Across eight studies, Lucas and Nordgren tested whether people understood their own creativity.

The researchers used a range of studies in which participants were asked to find creative solutions for a problem. Some tasks lasted just a few minutes; one took five days. In some instances the participants were familiar with the subject matter, including one study in which they were asked to work on a personal project. In the final study, alumni of the Second City improv comedy school participated in a cartoon-captioning contest.

Participants were asked to predict their creativity, but in one instance they were asked to retrospectively rate their creativity. Additionally, in one study the authors tested whether knowing about the “creative cliff illusion” would weaken its effect.

Lucas and Nordgren compared people’s beliefs against their actual creative performance. They found that while people’s creativity stayed the same or improved over time, “people’s beliefs did not match this reality.”

They found that people expected the quantity of their ideas, and thus their creativity, to decline over time.

“It is difficult to anticipate how creative your ideas will be over a certain period of time,” Lucas said. “You may hit an inspirational hot streak and come up with amazing ideas, or you may not. So when people are asked to predict how creative their ideas will be, they tend to rely on a source of information that is easier to anticipate: how many ideas they will generate.”

One way to combat this in the workplace, Lucas said, is for managers to allow employees to gain experience by doing creative work, which will allow them to naturally observe that they are able to generate creative ideas for longer periods.

Another recommendation would be to pair workers with low creative experience with those who have strong creative experience, with the hope that the experienced worker can pass on insights about the creative process to the less experienced worker, either explicitly or tacitly.

“The creative cliff illusion is, at the end of the day, an illusion, or an inaccurate belief,” Lucas said. “One way to address the problem is to correct the belief.”

Funding for this research was provided by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the University of Chicago.

Julie Greco is a communications specialist with the ILR School.

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