Science Brief

Motivating creativity at work: The necessity of others is the mother of invention

The combination of intrinsic motivation and taking other people’s perspectives is the best route to creativity on the job.

By Adam M. Grant

Adam Grant, PhDAdam Grant is a tenured management professor at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan in organizational psychology and his BA from Harvard University. His research focuses on work motivation, job design, prosocial helping and giving behaviors, initiative and proactivity, leadership, and burnout. He is the 2011 recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution, the Academy of Management’s Cummings Scholarly Achievement Award, and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s Distinguished Early Career Contributions Award. He has earned multiple school-wide and university-wide teaching awards and designed experiential learning activities in which students have raised over $58,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation while developing leadership, negotiation, and motivation skills. He has worked with organizations such as Google, Citi, Medco, and the U.S. Air Force. Before graduate school, he worked at Let’s Go Publications, setting multiple company records for advertising sales and earning the Manager of the Year award. He is a former All-American springboard diver, conflict mediator, and magician. Author website.


What do Gmail, The Godfather, LED bright lighting technology, the Pontiac Fiero, and Post-it® Notes have in common?

Each of these groundbreaking innovations emerged from creative ideas generated by employees working on projects outside the scope of their job responsibilities (Mainemelis, 2010). Creativity is the currency of societal progress and the hallmark of success in organizations. To innovate, adapt, excel, and survive, organizations depend on creativity from employees. Yet most organizations rely on a small number of employees for creativity, missing opportunities to introduce a broader range of perspectives to their products, services, and work processes. What motivates employees to generate creative ideas in everyday jobs?

Enjoying the Work Itself: Intrinsic Motivation and Creativity

For more than three decades, psychologists have studied intrinsic motivation as a driver of creativity (Amabile, 1996). The core assumption is that when employees enjoy the work itself, they process information flexibly, experience positive affect, and become willing to take risks and persist in efforts to develop and refine ideas (Elsbach & Hargadon, 2006; Shalley, Zhou, & Oldham, 2004).

However, research has returned inconsistent results (George, 2007). In field studies, employees complete surveys measuring their intrinsic motivation, and creativity is assessed through supervisor ratings as well as more objective outcomes such as patents, invention disclosures, and reports. Intrinsic motivation is related to significantly higher creativity in some of these studies, but not in others. In laboratory experiments, researchers manipulate intrinsic motivation by providing a choice of tasks, drawing attention to different reasons for working on a task, or varying rewards and evaluative pressures, and expert judges assess the creativity of each participant’s output. Once again, some laboratory experiments have shown that inducing intrinsic motivation increases creativity, whereas others have not. These mixed findings raise a critical question: is intrinsic motivation important for creativity?

Although intrinsic motivation can be conducive to creativity, it may be insufficient. Consider the case of Spencer Silver, a 3M chemist. In 1968, Silver discovered a low-tack polymer that functioned as a reusable adhesive. Silver explored possibilities for using the glue as a spray or a bulletin board background. Because he did not succeed in identifying a more practical purpose for the glue, the company did not recognize it as a creative idea (3M, 2009; Baxter, 1995). Fast-forward six years to 1974. Silver’s colleague, Arthur Fry, was singing in a church choir. He was attempting to hold a page in his hymn book, but his bookmark kept falling out. Frey realized that the non-stick adhesive discovered by Silver might have value as a reusable bookmark. Together, Silver and Fry invented Post-it® Notes, which hit the market in 1980 and quickly became a smashing success. What explains the 12-year delay between Silver’s discovery of the reusable adhesive and the arrival of Post-it® Notes?

Creativity is the production of ideas that are both novel and useful (Amabile, 1996). Silver had developed a novel idea, but struggled to identify a useful application. Could Silver have generated the Post-it® Note concept earlier, without Fry’s insight?

Silver’s pattern is all too common for employees who are driven solely by intrinsic motivation. By itself, intrinsic motivation tends to foster a focus on novelty. According to theories of motivated reasoning, our desires and interests direct our attention (Kunda, 1990; Nickerson, 1998). When employees are intrinsically motivated, they are drawn to original perspectives and new discoveries, which attract, engage, and sustain their interest (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Silvia, 2008). However, what is novel to an individual employee may not necessarily be useful to others. As Silvia (2008: 58) summarized, “interest attracts people to new, unfamiliar things, and many of these things will turn out to be trivial.”

Considering and Caring About Others’ Views: Perspective-Taking and Prosocial Motivation

To generate ideas that are useful as well as novel, it is important for employees to take others’ perspectives. Considering the viewpoints of customers, supervisors, coworkers, or suppliers can facilitate usefulness in two ways. First, perspective-taking provides employees with access to new ideas. Second, perspective-taking provides employees with a standard for selecting which of their novel ideas to pursue. If Silver had contemplated the needs of different groups of people, he might have identified a broader range of applications for his reusable adhesive.

What motivates employees to engage in this type of perspective-taking? Theories of motivated reasoning point to prosocial motivation, the desire to benefit others (De Dreu & Nauta, 2009). Research suggests that many employees care about benefiting others, both as a guiding principle in life (Schwartz & Bardi, 2001) and as a core value at work (Cable & Edwards, 2004; Colby, Sippola, & Phelps, 2001; Ruiz-Quintanilla & England, 1996). When employees are prosocially motivated, they are more likely to adopt others’ perspectives to understand their needs and preferences (De Dreu, Weingart, & Kwon, 2000). Thus, employee creativity may be highest when employees are both intrinsically and prosocially motivated: they are driven to generate ideas based on a joint desire to enjoy the process of developing ideas and produce outcomes that benefit other people. Intrinsic motivation draws attention to novelty, and prosocial motivation encourages perspective-taking, making sure that employees’ novel ideas are also useful.

Concern for Others and Creativity: Evidence from the Field and the Lab

To test these arguments, a colleague and I conducted two field studies and a laboratory experiment (Grant & Berry, 2011). Our first study took place at a U.S. military base. We distributed surveys to 90 employees, who reported their levels of intrinsic and prosocial motivation at work. Nine months later, supervisors rated each employee’s creativity. Creative ideas generated during the study included new and improved training procedures, safety protocols, plans for equipment repair, and strategies for deploying security forces to guard the base. As predicted, intrinsic motivation was only related to higher creativity when employees were also prosocially motivated.

In our second study, we sought to replicate these findings in a different setting and add perspective-taking to the model. We collected survey data from 111 employees at a water treatment plant, who reported their intrinsic motivation, prosocial motivation, and tendencies to take others’ perspectives at work. Supervisors rated each employee’s creativity, which involved novel and useful suggestions for handling customer questions and complaints, updating engineering procedures, reducing pollution, and developing more efficient work processes. Once again, intrinsic motivation was only associated with higher creativity when employees experienced prosocial motivation too. Further, perspective-taking emerged as the key explanatory mechanism: prosocial motivation predicted higher perspective-taking, and perspective-taking strengthened the relationship between intrinsic motivation and creativity.

Our final study took place in the laboratory, where we sought to demonstrate causality and obtain unbiased ratings of creativity with participants working on the same task. We recruited 100 business students to participate. We manipulated intrinsic motivation by asking the participants to choose between two tasks, informing them that past participants had rated one as “interesting” and one as “boring.” All participants selected the “interesting” task. In the high intrinsic motivation condition, we accepted their choice; in the low intrinsic motivation condition, we rejected their choice, explaining that the other task was full.

We manipulated prosocial motivation by explaining that a local band was encountering difficulties making profits. In the high prosocial motivation condition, participants learned that the band members were in need: the band was their full-time job, and each member had a family to support. In the low prosocial motivation condition, participants learned that the band was a hobby, and although the members enjoyed playing, they were not dependent on the income.

We asked participants to generate ideas for the band to increase revenue, and then distributed a survey in which they indicated their levels of intrinsic motivation (task enjoyment), prosocial motivation (desire to help the band members), and perspective-taking (focus of attention on band members’ needs and viewpoints). As expected, our manipulations were effective, and two expert judges evaluated the creativity of each participant’s ideas. Creativity was highest in the condition involving high levels of both intrinsic and prosocial motivation; the other three conditions did not differ significantly from each other. Further, this interaction was again explained by perspective-taking: prosocial motivation encouraged participants to take the band members’ perspectives, and this enhanced the contribution of intrinsic motivation to creativity.

Policy Implications: Connecting Employees to End Users

Together, these studies show that intrinsic motivation alone may not be sufficient to drive creativity. These findings have important policy implications. As psychologists, we have a responsibility to create conditions that are conducive to prosocial motivation and perspective-taking in work organizations.

A key step in this direction involves placing employees in direct contact with the end users of their products and services. Many employees do work that benefits other people, but lack the opportunity to see the impact directly (Grant, 2007, 2008a). Consider automotive engineers who design cars for nameless drivers and passengers, authors who write for faceless readers, and medical research scientists who develop cures and vaccines for unknown patients. Psychological research suggests that establishing contact between employees and end users may catalyze prosocial motivation and perspective-taking. For example, research suggests that exposure to others in need is a powerful driver of empathy and prosocial motivation (Batson & Shaw, 1991), and that contact with different groups reduces prejudice, opening the door for identification (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). When employees have contact with end users, they can see how their work makes a difference in end users’ lives, developing a stronger concern for helping them (prosocial motivation) and gaining a deeper understanding of their preferences and viewpoints (perspective-taking). This may motivate them to work harder and smarter, and more effectively.

To investigate these hypotheses, I led a series of field experiments with fundraising callers who solicit alumni donations to a university. Although the donation money helps to fund student scholarships, callers rarely receive information about this important consequence of their work. One experiment involved randomly assigning one group of callers to meet a scholarship student and two other groups to control conditions (Grant et al., 2007). The student spent less than ten minutes describing how the scholarship had made a difference in his life. In the following month, the callers who had contact with the scholarship recipient worked harder and more effectively, with average weekly increases per caller of 142% in minutes on the phone and 171% in donation money raised (Grant et al., 2007). In another experiment, a 15-minute visit from a different scholarship recipient motivated callers to increase average weekly revenue by more than 400%, from $411.74 to $2,083.52, resulting in gains of $38,451 for the organization in a single week (Grant, 2008b). In both studies, the control groups showed no significant changes. In addition, the contact does not need to be with an end user, as long as it provides novel information about the impact and social value of their work: callers were motivated to work harder when a previously unknown manager visited to express gratitude for their efforts (Grant & Gino, 2010).

Subsequent studies have shown that contact with end users motivates employees to work not only harder, but also smarter and more creatively. In addition to spending more time on the phone and making more calls, meeting a scholarship recipient gives employees access to stories that they can share on the phone with alumni. After contact with a scholarship recipient, employees are more likely to tell alumni about how specific students can benefit from their donations, and this increases the probability that alumni will donate.

Other studies have shown that when radiologists see a photo of a patient, they report greater empathy, write longer reports, and achieve greater diagnostic accuracy (Turner, Hadas-Halperin, & Raveh, 2008; Grant & Parker, 2009), and when lifeguards read stories about peers saving drowning swimmers, they perceive their efforts as having greater impact on—and as more valued by—swimmers, which motivates them to work more hours and spend more time helping swimmers (Grant, 2008a). Further, Sethi and Nicholson (2001, p. 159) found that when product development teams have customer contact, they are motivated to introduce new ideas, creating products that were more likely to exceed projections for sales and market share: customer contact “can enhance members’ commitment to strive for superior outcomes that can better satisfy customers’ needs. A direct exposure makes the abstract problems and issues faced by customers real for the product development team.”

Outsourcing Inspiration: Fostering Prosocial Motivation and Perspective-Taking

What types of practices can organizations use to connect employees to end users, creating enabling conditions for prosocial motivation and perspective-taking? In a recent article (Grant, 2011), I argued that instead of delivering inspiring messages themselves, leaders and managers can “outsource inspiration” to end users. Here are five best practices for outsourcing creative inspiration, with examples from organizations that have pioneered them:

1.  Create events for employees to meet end users: 

  • Facebook flies users out to visit and tell developers how they’ve reconnected with family and friends, and Microsoft encourages developers to watch users testing new products; 

  • Deere & Company invites farmers who buy tractors to visit the factory and receive a gold key from assembly line employees; 

  • Medtronic has an annual party in which patients tell salespeople, engineers, and technicians how the company’s medical technology has transformed their lives, and St. Luke’s Hospital has a Night of Heroes event at which trauma team members come face-to-face with people whose lives they saved.

2.  Circulate stories for employees to learn about end users’ perspectives: 

  • Wells Fargo creates videos for bankers to see customers describing how low-interest loans have changed their lives; 

  • Olive Garden circulates letters to servers from customers about why they chose to celebrate key moments at the restaurant; 

  • The Volvo Saved My Life Club collects videos and letters from drivers whose lives were saved by the company’s safety designs.

3.  Collect and share data on end users’ preferences: 

  • At a large supermarket, most employees believe that customers care primarily about price. The Oliver Wyman consulting firm collected data on customer preferences and complaints, enabling employees to see that freshness of food—not price—was the central concern. 

  • Medco, a healthcare company, collects feedback from patients on “wow” experiences, and shares the feedback to motivate pharmacists to provide exceptional service.

4.  Invite employees to share their own stories: 

  • Ritz Carlton has daily 15-minute meetings in which employees tell stories about “wowing” hotel guests; 

  • A Merrill Lynch branch starts weekly team meetings with employees describing memorable instances of helping customers.

5.  Turn employees into end users: 

  • At Patagonia, employees are encouraged to field-test the company’s outdoor sports products; 

  • At Four Seasons Hotels, housekeepers and clerks wrap up orientation by spending a night in their own hotels.

Conclusion

To foster creativity, it is not enough to make work interesting, challenging, and engaging. We also need to develop policies and practices that enable employees to understand the impact of their work on past, current, and potential end users. This can catalyze prosocial motivation and perspective-taking, encouraging employees to develop ideas that are useful as well as novel. It appears that these principles were powerfully understood by R. Buckminster Fuller, one of the most creative individuals in recent history. Fuller is often recognized as the “DaVinci of the 20th century” for his novel, useful contributions as an inventor, engineer, architect, mathematician, and poet. Reflecting upon his creative achievements, including the geodesic dome (Fuller & Kuromiya, 1981, p. 125), he wrote that “The larger the number for whom I worked, the more positively effective I became. Thus, it is obvious that if I worked always… for all humanity, I would be optimally effective.”

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