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Positive Environments Catalyze Creativity at Work

By Melissa J. Anderson

Happy workplace environments mean more creative, productive employees, says a new study [PDF], performed by researchers at several major companies. We frequently associate creativity with tortured genius – like that of Edgar Allen Poe or Sylvia Plath. But, the study explains, in the work environment, positivity in terms of motivation and teamwork helps individuals produce more creative, quality work.

The study analyzed quantitative and qualitative longitudinal data from over 200 employees in seven companies. The study showed that positivity was, in fact, the antecedent to creativity, and on productive teams, creativity and positivity created a feedback loop.

The researchers, Teresa M. Amabile, Harvard University; Sigal G. Barsade, University of Pennsylvania; Jennifer S. Mueller, New York University; and Barry M. Staw, University of California at Berkeley, wrote that the study subjects were employees with in the chemicals, high tech, and consumer products industries, working on a range of creative work – like developing new products, creating new processes, and solving complex client problems.

They wrote, “When reactions to ideas are encouraging, a virtuous cycle may be established, in which cognitive variation and creativity are subsequently increased. In contrast, if reactions to ideas are negative, the affect-creativity cycle may be truncated.”

Positivity and Innovation

The study, “Affect and Creativity at Work,” revealed that the relationship between positive affect and creativity was even stronger than the researchers suspected, they said, and correlated across several measures.

“Given this diversity of measurement, the discovery of a consistent relationship between positive affect and creativity should be taken seriously. This consistency is particularly notable given that it emerged within the complexity of organizational life, where people are engaged in a variety of work activities under ever-changing circumstances.”

Cultivating a positive environment can help teams, and ultimately companies, be more productive and innovative, particularly when it comes to solving problems. The study authors wrote:

“Creativity—coming up with fresh ideas for changing products, services, and processes so as to better achieve the organization’s goals—has been heralded as a key to enduring advantage. Creative responses by employees at all levels in the organization have therefore taken center stage in discussions of organizational innovation, and considerable research has been focused on factors that may foster or impede creativity in organizations.

Given that positive reinforcement by team members at all levels of the organization can help boost creativity, the research highlights the importance of culture on employee output.

Feedback Cycle

According to the report, qualitative data showed that a positive encounter increased creativity for up to two days, and that output could produce more positive feedback, creating a cycle. On the other hand, a negative environment could cut that productivity short. They explained:

“Finally, our exploration … uncovered evidence of four distinct patterns of influence: affect can operate as an antecedent to creativity; affect can operate as a direct consequence of creativity; affect can operate as an indirect consequence of creativity; and affect can occur simultaneously with creative activity. Thus, it appears that people’s feelings and creative cognitions are interwoven in several distinct ways within the complex fabric of their daily work lives.”

The researchers posit that positivity increases creativity by giving the brain more to work with.

“First, positive affect makes additional cognitive material available for processing, increasing the number of cognitive elements available for association. Second, it leads to defocused attention and a more complex cognitive context, increasing the breadth of those elements that are treated as relevant to the problem. Third, it increases cognitive flexibility, increasing the probability that diverse cognitive elements will in fact become associated.

Particularly at a time when companies are squeezed by reduced budgets and downsized teams, getting the most out of employees is critical. Ensuring that teams are collegial and motivating can help produce bigger outcomes.

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