via Carlin Felder
What Doesn't Motivate Creativity Can Kill It
by Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer | 9:49 AM April 25, 2012
Management is widely viewed as a foe of innovation. The thinking goes that too much management strangles innovation (just let a thousand flowers bloom!). But we have found a much more nuanced picture. You really can manage for innovation, but it starts by knowing what drives creativity in the people who generate and develop the new ideas that, when implemented, will become tomorrow's innovations. Unfortunately, too many managers unintentionally kill innovation because they rely too heavily on carrots and sticks to motivate employees.
More than three decades of research have shown that people are most likely to be creative when they're intrinsically motivatedby the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself. But motivation inside organizations is a tricky business, because most everyone is driven by many extrinsic motivators, too — such as compensation, rewards, recognition, and fear of failure. Although many extrinsic motivators can kill intrinsic motivation and creativity, others — if handled delicately — can actually support them. It's all a matter of balance.
Savvy managers know how to balance four factors, to properly motivate creativity and, ultimately, innovation:
Creativity suffers when strategic goals are too loose, and when creators are too tightly constrained in how they accomplish those goals. People need to know what problem they're trying to solve, and why it matters; they can't be intrinsically motivated unless their work has meaning. That requires clear strategic direction toward a worthy purpose — whether it's curing a disease or providing a new form of entertainment that will enhance consumers' lives. But intrinsic motivation and creativity wither when people are told exactly what to do and how to do it; they need the autonomy to apply their own specific skills and talents. So: clear direction on the strategic goal, but lots of leeway in how to achieve it.
In our research inside organizations, we have often observed reduced creativity under conditions of strong evaluation pressure. In such situations, people are reluctant to contribute their ideas because they fear overly critical reactions. Curiously, we have also found reduced creativity in situations where evaluation and feedback are notably absent. In the latter situations, people charged with doing creative work have the sense that no one knows, or cares, what they are doing. The crucial balance involves a great deal of frequent, work-focused evaluation and feedback that is truly informative and constructive. Ideally, these evaluations involve peers (as well as supervisors) openly discussing the work. To perform at their creative peak, people need to know that every idea will be respected (if not accepted) — respected enough to merit thoughtful consideration. The best managers that we observed went a step further. Rather than being overly critical when ideas didn't pan out, they accepted the failures as a necessary part of doing creative work and helped employees search for lessons and opportunities in those failures.
We all need equitable, sufficiently generous compensation for our work, to avoid the distraction of financial worries, and to feel that we (and our work) are valued by our organizations. Recognition is another essential form of reward; it, too, signals that the person and the work are valued. Neither of these extrinsic motivators need damage intrinsic motivation or creativity.
But when people feel that material rewards are being dangled before them like carrots on a stick, they come to feel externally controlled — a primary damper of intrinsic motivation. Our research suggests that creativity flourishes when employees know that rewards and recognition will follow from good, creative efforts — without being told constantly about exactly which rewards will follow from which actions. Moreover, it is important that the rewards provide information about employees' competence and the value of their work, or enable them to do something that they really wanted to do — or both.
Some of the most positive rewards are not monetary. As one interviewee said in a study we conducted several years ago, "Part of the reward is having your managers listen to what you have done. Having access to your supervisors increases internal motivation, so managers should be available on an informal basis."
When it comes to creativity, there's good pressure and there's bad pressure. The bad stuff is extreme time pressure arising from multiple demands unrelated to the most important creative work. Competitive pressure with coworkers can also be a killer. But having the positive pressure of an optimally challenging assignment — being given an important problem to solve that no one else has been able to crack — can supercharge intrinsic motivation and creativity. ("Optimally challenging" means that it's tough, but your skills are up to the task.) Feeling like you're on a mission to create something that's urgently needed can be a real high. But pressure that does not contribute to the mission can only distract from getting problems solved.
In the end, it's level, form, and meaning of the motivator that makes for that perfect balance. Being told to do a tough job in a particular way, with no tolerance of failure, little expectation of recognition for success, and extreme, arbitrary time pressure, can kill anyone's creativity motivation. But being given the same job, in a positive atmosphere where false starts are examined constructively and success is recognized, can drive creativity — and innovation — forward.
Does your organization's management apply these motivational balance factors appropriately? Which are the most difficult to maintain?