Feature

When the pressure's on, people produce--so the conventional wisdom goes. That may be true for making widgets, but it's not the recipe for producing creative ideas, said social psychologist Teresa Amabile, PhD, the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, in a 2002 APA Annual Convention talk.

In her studies of creativity in corporate America, she has found that the more workers feel crunched, the less likely they are to solve a tricky problem, envision a new product line or have other such "aha!" experiences that qualify as innovation. And workers don't tend to realize this, said Amabile, often assuming that the harder and longer they've worked, the more creative they've been. Time pressure quashes creativity, Amabile posits, because it limits people's freedom to ponder different options and directions. "Think of it as the way you might enter a maze and explore for a solution," she said. "With increased time pressure, you take the simplest pathway, not one that's elegant or creative. But if you're able to spend more time exploring the maze, you're more likely to hit on exciting or new solutions."

That's the pattern Amabile found among 177 highly educated employees in seven U.S. chemical, high-tech and consumer-products companies. Previously, Amabile had studied creativity suppressors in highly controlled lab research. That research had shown that intrinsic motivation (personal passion for one's work) is a critical creativity stimulator that can be squashed by extrinsic constraints.

In her workplace study of the employees, published in the Harvard Business Review (Vol. 80, No. 8), Amabile sought to explore other influences by "stalking creativity in the wild"--in the cubicles of corporate America. She and her colleagues asked employees to e-mail them daily reports on events occurring in their work, and to complete scale-rated measures of the daily time pressure they felt and how creative they thought they were.

As expected, time pressure negatively predicted creative thinking, as indicated by employees' reports of coming up with ideas or solving problems: It turned out employees were 45 percent less likely to think creatively on high-pressure days than they were on low-pressure days. Surprisingly, though, they reported feeling more creative under higher time pressure.

"Although people were working more on high time-pressure days, and feeling 'jazzed,' they were less likely to come up with a creative thought that day, the next day and the day after," said Amabile. "There appears to be a time-pressure hangover."

But that's not the whole story. In further analyzing employees' daily reports, Amabile found that time pressure didn't always inhibit creativity, and, in fact, sometimes spurred it if employees were allowed to focus, undisturbed, on a single activity that they considered truly important. One-on-one collaboration also spurred creativity, regardless of time pressure. On the flip side, meeting-filled, fragmented "treadmill" days tended to kill creativity by making workers feel unproductive, unfocused and more pressed for time.

"The findings have important managerial implications, especially for knowledge workers," said Amabile. "It's important to limit time pressure. But if that's unavoidable, managers should protect workers from distractions, avoid scheduling multiple meetings with multiple people and help employees to feel that they're 'on a mission.'"