Cover Story

The first time nurse Tracey Lund encountered a dialysis machine, she practically had to build it herself. As a new nurse in an understaffed hospital, Lund figured out on her own how to select the appropriate tubes, fit them to a system of IV pumps and, most importantly, read the analog requirements of the machine--which cleans the blood of patients with kidney failure. "Back then," says Lund, "it was like trial by fire."

Years later, the experience inspired Lund to think about ways to improve specialized training for nurses. Lund brought an idea to her current supervisor at Tampa General Hospital. "I said, 'I think I could teach this,'" recalls Lund. With her supervisor's endorsement, Lund now runs a full day of dialysis training for other nurses at the hospital and frequently receives calls from colleagues interested in starting up similar programs.

Though Lund is proud of her creation, she gives a great deal of credit to the hospital's managing staff for helping to make it happen. Her supervisor, she says, makes a habit of encouraging all of the nurses to generate and explore new ideas.

Lund's experience is backed up by psychologists' research, which points to the importance of a workplace environment that fosters creativity. Psychologist Jing Zhou, PhD, of Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Management, finds, for example, that two ingredients are critical for workplace innovations: supportive management and creative co-workers. Other psychologists are uncovering a number of environmental effects on office creativity as well, from the squelching influence of micromanagement to the encouraging effect of environments that reward creativity. Some research suggests that, in the right workplace, even bad moods can foster creativity.

"You don't have to be a genius--in the right environment, anyone can be creative," says Zhou.

Offices primed for innovation

In a recent study, published in the June 2003 Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 3), Zhou investigated three factors and their effect on workplace creativity: co-workers, managerial feedback and creative personality. Zhou surveyed 123 hospital employees, such as registered nurses, pharmacists and administrative personnel. Participants filled out surveys assessing three factors: supervisor managerial style, co-worker creativity and their own tendency to innovate at work.

Managers then assessed their employees' on-the-job innovation--defined as "coming up with new and useful ideas with regard to the procedures and processes used at work." By pairing each supervisor and employee's response, Zhou says she was able to get a detailed picture of a number of factors affecting creativity.

Zhou found that the presence of creative co-workers can foster employee innovation, but only when supervisors do not engage in close monitoring. Close monitoring, explains Zhou, is characterized by frequent and intrusive checkups by supervisors.

In addition to being irksome, pressure from a micromanaging boss may cause employees, especially people who are not naturally creative, to simply mimic the behavior of their creative co-workers. "That is not creativity," notes Zhou. In order to benefit from a creative co-worker, Zhou explains, an employee must be given the space and the time to learn creativity strategies used by their innovative colleagues, such as brainstorming.

Zhou's finding that close monitoring by supervisors dampens creativity dovetails with the research of Teresa Amabile, PhD, the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, who has studied creativity for over two decades. "The most effective way to stifle creativity," explains Amabile, "is to make people feel that they have no discretion and autonomy."

While few psychologists dispute the positive effect of autonomy on workplace creativity, new research is calling into question the impact of affect, or mood, on creativity.

Mood effects on creativity

Indeed, while it may seem intuitive to assume that positive mood spurs creativity at work, recent research suggests that, at least in some cases, negative mood may be more likely to trigger the creative juices. This finding comes from a new study by Zhou and Jennifer M. George, PhD, of Rice University, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 87, No. 4), and it runs counter to the established theory on mood and creativity.

In the study of 67 helicopter manufacturing employees, George and Zhou discovered that employees who reported experiencing negative moods such as anxiety and unhappiness within the previous week tended to be more creative during that time. George and Zhou measured workplace creativity with supervisor ratings, which were then paired with employee self-assessment of mood.

George and Zhou also found that workers with "high clarity of feeling," a trait characterized by an awareness of one's own emotions, especially benefited from the creativity-enhancing effect of negative feelings.

Negative emotions are fertile ground for new ideas, theorizes Zhou, because our moods "tell us something." In certain contexts, a bad mood can indicate to an employee that more work needs to be done. However, in workplaces that do not reward creativity, employees might interpret a negative emotion as simply signaling a task is no longer enjoyable. In this case, a worker may try to dispel a bad mood by suspending work, rather than searching for a new solution.

In contrast to this finding, Alice M. Isen, PhD, the S.C. Johnson Professor in the Johnson Graduate School of Management, and psychology professor at Cornell University, has conducted a number of studies showing that positive mood enhances creative performance. Happy workers, says Isen, are more likely to be cognitively flexible, to generate novel ideas and to persist at tasks--all important components of creativity.

In one recent study by Isen and Amir Erez, PhD, of the University of Florida, positive moods increased both motivation and creativity. Erez and Isen's study, published in the December 2002 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 87, No. 4), tested 97 undergraduate students' performance on anagram-solving. Half of the participants received a bag of candy upon their arrival at the testing facility, while the other half did not. Gift presentation, explains Isen and Erez, is an effective method for elevating the mood of research participants. Isen and Erez also used other methods to induce positive moods, such as showing subjects the first five minutes of a non-aggressive comedy film.

The students who were in positive moods because of receiving gifts performed better than the control group on a number of creativity trials, including the anagram test. Additionally, when in an environment that rewarded good performance, happy participants persisted longer than the control group at the task, which included four unsolvable anagrams.

Though Isen's research suggests that positive emotion enhances many components of creativity, she says she does not doubt there may be exceptions to this general effect. However, Isen cautions, studies in which emotions are not induced and groups are not randomly assigned run the risk of conflating the effect of mood with some other factor. Other attributes about the person who reports being creative despite a negative mood, says Isen, "might be playing a role in [his or her] creativity."

While researchers debate the factors influencing on-the-job creativity, Tracey Lund, with the support of her supervisor, continues to work at finding new solutions to the problems she encounters as a nurse. Though she has devoted four years to developing better methods to teach fellow nurses how to calculate figures on dialysis flowsheets, Lund's current ambition is to do away with the calculation sheets altogether. This would help to eliminate some of the busy work associated with dialysis machine operation, explains Lund.

"Nurses almost have to be creative," observes Zhou. In order for hospitals to thrive in the face of many challenges, says Zhou, they will have to be not only open to new ideas, but actively cultivate an environment hospitable to innovation. "When things get rough, that's when we need new ideas the most," she explains. Unfortunately, the paradox of creativity is that, during tough times, "management's first instinct is to tighten things," says Zhou. But hopefully, as more managers learn of psychologists' creativity findings, more of them will override that first instinct and think of the long-term health of the office, as Lund's boss did.

Further Reading

  • Amabile, T.M. (1996). Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

  • George, J.M., & Zhou, J. (2002). Understanding when bad moods foster creativity and good ones don't: The role of context and clarity of feelings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 687-697.

  • Isen, A.M., Johnson, M.M.S., Mertz, E., & Robinson, G.R. (1985). The influence of positive affect on the unusualness of word associations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 1413-1426.

  • Zhou, J. (2003). When the presence of creative coworkers is related to creativity: Role of supervisor close monitoring, developmental feedback, and creative personality. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(3), 413-422.

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