Click for Academy of Management home page

A A A
Academy of Management

Concern for others boosts job creativity, study finds

March 1, 2011

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

What is creative about concern for others and attentiveness to their viewpoints? Not much, it would seem, creativity being generally associated with independence and individualism rather than with prosocial motivation or prosocial behaviors. Indeed, several studies have suggested that psychological processes focused on others constrain creativity and foster conformity.
 
Now new research calls this view into question, with important implications for organizations and their employees. As expressed by a study's title in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal, "The necessity of others is the mother of invention."
 
"For several decades, researchers have believed that intrinsic motivation is an important driver of creativity...based on interest in and enjoyment of the work itself," begins the new study by Adam M. Grant of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and James Berry of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Yet, "there is reason to believe that intrinsic motivation drives the production of novel ideas, but not necessarily useful ideas...Prosocially motivated employees will be driven to develop ideas that are useful to the coworkers, supervisors, clients or customers who benefit from their efforts."
 
In sum, "when guided by prosocial motivation to take others' perspectives, employees will channel their intrinsic motivation toward producing ideas that are not only novel, but also useful, thereby achieving higher creativity."
 
The research extends a growing interest among managers and management scholars in prosocial motivation in the workplace, whether directed at supervisors, coworkers, customers or clients. Beyond hiring altruistic employees, how can prosocial motivation be fostered? By building it into jobs, something scholars call "relational job design," an approach based on the realization that social concern and self-interest are not mutually exclusive. In the words of the new study, "Employees can desire to help others because they care about them, because they feel that it is the right thing to do, because they wish to maintain membership in a valued group, or because doing so will make them feel good about themselves. Thus, prosocial motivation can involve but should not necessarily be equated with, altruism; it refers to a concern for others, not a concern for others at the expense of self-interest."
 
Research has found prosocial motivation to be associated not just with personal initiative and good company citizenship but with superior job performance as well -- and the new study expands this last finding in a particularly significant way, Prof. Grant believes. "At a time when jobs in advanced economies are commonly lost to computers and new communications technology, creativity takes on an ever-increasing importance in job design," he observes in an interview. "A computer may beat a Jeopardy champion at retrieving information, but the time will probably never arrive when computers can supplant people in creativity and social relations. One reason relational job design is so interesting is that it unlocks part of what makes people uniquely effective at work."
 
The research report in the current Academy of Management Journal consists of two separate field studies complemented by a laboratory experiment.
 
In one study, 90 security officers at a military base were surveyed on what motivated them on the job through questions that probed to what extent it was intrinsic motivation ("because I enjoy the work," or "because it's fun") and to what extent it was prosocial motivation ("because I want to help others through my work" or "because I care about benefiting others through my work"). Nine months later the employees' supervisors were asked to evaluate the creativity each officer had exhibited since the surveys were completed (for instance, "generates novel, but operable work-related ideas").
 
The research revealed that, although prosocial motivation on its own was not significantly associated with the employees' creativity, it considerably strengthened the association between intrinsic motivation and creativity. Examples of creativity cited by supervisors included developing protocols for unforeseen but serious threats, looking for new ways to cover several thousand square miles of ground, generating dynamic interview protocols, and finding faster ways to repair equipment.
 
A similar relationship among the three factors emerged from a survey at a water treatment plant of 111 employees and their supervisors. An additional finding in this study was that the effect of prosocial motivation was attributable to its association with perspective-taking, a person's attention to the perspectives of others.
 
Complementing the two field studies was an experiment via computer in which 100 university students were asked for ideas on how a local band (which, unbeknownst to experiment participants, was fictional) could generate increased revenues. About half the participants were given the impression they had chosen to take on this task (high intrinsic motivation), while the remainder were given the sense that they had been assigned to it instead of to an unspecified, more interesting challenge (low intrinsic motivation); half the students were led to believe band members were in dire financial straits (high prosocial motivation), while the rest were told the band was merely a hobby for its members (low prosocial motivation). Independent experts rated the creativity of participants' ideas.
 
By far the most creative group was the one with both high intrinsic motivation and high prosocial motivation, while the three other groups were indistinguishable in terms of creativity. As the study puts it, "Intrinsic motivation increased creativity when prosocial motivation was high but not when prosocial motivation was low."
 
Grant and Berry propose, in the words of the study, "that managers interested in fueling creativity will find it advantageous to create conditions that support prosocial motivation and perspective taking. For example, managers may directly introduce opportunities for perspective-taking between employees and their clients or suppliers, structure opportunities for employees to interact with the beneficiaries or end users of their work, or communicate the urgency of customers' and coworkers' problems." In an earlier paper in the Academy of Management Review, Grant cited such examples of relational job design as Microsoft's enabling software developers to observe users testing new programs and Medtronic's annual parties where employees meet patients whose lives have been improved by their products.
 
In further exploration of prosocial motivation in the workplace, Prof. Grant has found that it enhances the effect of inspirational leadership, much as it strengthens the effect of intrinsic motivation. Recently accepted for future publication in The Academy of Management Journal, research focusing on 329 federal employees reveals that strong, visionary leadership from their supervisors translates into superior job performance mainly when the employees interact extensively with people affected by their work, such as customers or ordinary citizens; in contrast, when beneficiary contact is low, the effect of inspiring leadership on the employees' performance is significantly weaker. 
 
Reminded that 2011 is the 100th anniversary of a landmark in management history, the publication of Frederick W. Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management, Grant observes that views on enhancing job performance have come a long way since Taylor's time-and-motion studies a century ago. "Taylorism, with its overwhelming emphasis on maximizing worker specialization, reigned supreme for decades," the professor acknowledges. "But eventually it inspired a backlash among management thinkers who argued for a more human-centered approach to the workplace, an approach that seeks to make jobs intrinsically motivating by providing variety, autonomy, and a sense of wholeness and completion. Now we're increasingly coming to see that jobs aren't just collections of tasks but collections of relationships and that, on all manner of workplace issues, including creativity, we need to think about interactions among people as part of job design."
 
He adds: "Even though efficiency considerations tempt us these days to do much of our communication via computer and remote communication, one of the major themes of current research is that there's really no substitute for in-person connections. Even as video conferencing and Webcast technology improve, we get more and more requests for leadership-development programs based on face-to-face interactions."
 
The new study, entitled "The Necessity of Others is the Mother of Invention: Intrinsic and Prosocial Motivations, Perspective-Taking, and Creativity," is in the February/March issue of the The Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives and Academy of Management Learning and Education.
Media Coverage:
The Globe & Mail. Want to be really creative? Stop thinking about yourself. (Saturday, March 19, 2011).

Academy of Management
Member Services
Join|Renew|Login
Academy of Management
Online Opportunities
Advertising
Academy of Management
Recognition
Awards|Leadership