Empathy Conducive to Creativity

New research suggests creativity in the workplace is enhanced by concern for others’ needs, and a willingness to walk in their shoes.
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New research suggests creativity in the workplace is enhanced by concern for others’ needs, and a willingness to walk in their shoes.

Creativity is usually thought of as internally motivated — a response to a deeply felt personal urge to challenge convention, push boundaries and explore. But newly published research suggests that, at least in the business world, the link between inspiration and ingenuity is strengthened by focusing on the needs of others.

Writing in the Academy of Management Journal, Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and James Berry of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill report “intrinsic motivation is most likely to be associated with higher levels of creativity when employees are also prosocially motivated to take the perspective of others.” At least in a workplace situation, taking others’ needs into account, and seeing things from their point of view, seems to be a catalyst to creativity.

Grant and Berry describe three studies that support this conclusion: One a laboratory test featuring 100 college students, and two involving surveys of workers and their supervisors. In one study, 90 security force officers at an American military base filled out surveys regarding their attitudes toward their work. They rated the accuracy of a series of statements measuring their intrinsic motivations (“I enjoy the work itself”) and prosocial motivations (“I want to help others through my work”).

Nine months later, their supervisors were asked to evaluate their job performance in terms of creativity. “Officers with high levels of intrinsic motivation were more likely to earn higher supervisor creativity ratings when they also had high levels of prosocial motivation,” the researchers report.

A second, similar study of 111 employees and their direct supervisors at a water treatment plant again found that “intrinsic motivation was positively related to creativity when prosocial motivation was high, but not low.” The implication is that novelty (inspired by an inner drive to explore) plus a focus on usefulness (inspired by understanding the needs of others) is a catalyst for creativity.

The researchers believe their results have practical applications for those who run organizations.

“Managers typically seek to stimulate creativity by creating conditions that are conductive to intrinsic motivation, such as designing challenging and complex tasks, providing autonomy, and developing supportive feedback and evaluation systems,” they write. But to “facilitate the production of ideas that are creative in context,” they suggest managers “will find it advantageous to create conditions that support prosocial motivation and perspective-taking.”

Two ways to do so, according to Grant, are to "provide opportunities for employees to meet and interact with the people who benefit from their work, such as clients, customers, and other end users," and to "provide vivid information and stories from others that communicate the importance of the problem to be solved."

Grant and Berry concede it’s unclear whether their findings “extend to domains such as the natural sciences, literature and the arts,” where usefulness is not the fundamental goal of creative work. On the other hand, there are times when a composer is asked to write music for a ballet, a painter is asked to design a stage set or an architect is commissioned to design a building whose occupants have certain specific needs.

Masterpieces have been created under all of those conditions, and this research suggests they may have emerged because of — rather than in spite of — the fact the artist was helping someone else achieve their goal. At times, it appears the desire to serve others is the mother of invention.

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