Beyond the Myths of Creativity in the Workplace

Jing Zhou’s research helps firms capture the value of employee creativity to bring about organizational success

Creativity Why is the study of work so fascinating? Maybe because we think about it, talk about it, bring it home with us and, in extreme cases, marry it. Or maybe it’s that work is our livelihood, our identity, our passion. Where we work, what we do, how we do it and how we like it is not only a constant topic of conversation but a dynamic field of academic research in business schools around the world.

Organizational behavior faculty at the Jones School have advanced theory and published research on several critical topics and, through innovative exercises, cases and assignments, have demonstrated the applications and importance of organizational behavior (OB) in  today's dynamic business world. By observing, measuring and dissecting the workplace, OB academics tell the story of this thing we call work — what it means for the organization and the people who work there, and ultimately what value it provides to the practice of  management.


Defining creativity
When Jing Zhou entered the Ph.D. program in OB at the University of Illinois, she hoped to identify an emerging and important field of study. “I wanted to make a contribution,” she explains. “When I realized there was a topic called creativity, I thought, wow, this is  something I want to learn about. I was personally intrigued.” Back then, in the mid ’90s, her advisor was one of the early researchers of creativity in the field of management, and the timing was perfect for Zhou. “He was starting, the field was starting, and I was  starting.” It was the emergent topic for which she had been searching.

In an organizational setting, creativity is the generation of an idea that is new and useful. The creative idea may be concerned with new business models, new products and services, new managerial practices, new ways of improving internal processes, and new ways of  delighting customers. For Zhou, the Houston Endowment Professor of Management, it was employee creativity that caught her attention. “Employee creativity has been my consistent interest since my dissertation — I’ve had a systematic program of research. To me,  employee creativity was a puzzle. People do research for different reasons. When I started, the reason was simple. I was interested. I wanted to know the answers.”

From the very beginning, Zhou felt she was on to something. “My dissertation on creativity was the first of that kind of research. Usually when you do something really new, you do a lab experiment to establish the cause and effect because in the lab you can create a  condition and see whether that condition can enhance or inhibit creativity. So that’s what I did.”

Her dissertation explored the effect of positive or negative external feedback on creativity. “The results showed that managers not only need to give positive feedback, they need to provide it in such a way that is informational. Saying ‘you’re great’ doesn’t help. Providing information was the key thing.”


Discovering creativity in the workplace
Thanks to psychologist Teresa Amabile, evaluating creativity in the field of organizational behavior got an upgrade in 1979. “Before that time,” Zhou said, “People were thinking creativity was something magical happening in our mind, making it hard to measure. Amabile  said, ‘Let’s forget about what’s happening in a person’s mind.’” Amabile proposed a reliable way to measure creativity: a panel of judges. “As long as people who are familiar with this domain independently rate an idea as creative and you have several raters, the rates and scores converge in their certain scientific ways,” Zhou added. This method, the Consensus Assessment Technique for evaluating creativity, could be used in behavioral labs from then on. Later, Zhou and coauthors used a reliable measurement instrument in their research  into employee creativity in the workplace.

“When I do research, I use the scientific method to find out what we don’t know, and perhaps even challenge the stereotypes about something." That’s socially responsible scholarship. "When I identify a research topic, I need to think about if it’s something people already intuitively know or can I present findings that are counterintuitive?”

During Zhou’s early work, she discovered that even employees who were not creative could become creative. The keys to unlocking their creativity could be found in their environment and in managerial actions. When employees are surrounded by creative co-workers, “I  call them creative role models,” says Zhou, and their managers don’t closely monitor them, then they’re given the opportunity to explore and learn from their co-workers. “Even those people can become creative,” she explains. “They’re the ones who benefit the most from this social environment. "For me,” she says, “that was a really important finding.”

And it’s a finding that’s important for managers. Managers do not need to go to the labor market to search out the best and brightest to find creative employees,” Zhou explains. “Organizations may have lots of creative potential on tap. If the environment is right, meaning the right leadership style and the right co-workers surrounding the employee, even for the relatively non-creative employee, their creativity can be nurtured and promoted. So don’t look for creative people externally. Look internally.”

It’s also important to note that though individual differences exist, work environment really matters. Zhou’s research shows that if the work environment does not support creativity, even creative people cannot demonstrate it. Managers must foster environments that  support creativity for all of their employees in order to get the creative output they seek.


And why do managers highly value creativity in the first place? In her paper that explores how job dissatisfaction can lead to creativity, written with colleague Jennifer George, the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management, Zhou explains that employee creativity “is often the starting point for innovation.” Innovation is successfully translating an organization’s creative ideas into something of value, something that can be implemented.

And it’s these two pieces, creativity and innovation in the workplace, which neatly link the majority of Zhou’s research.

A road map for research
After earning her Ph.D. in 1996, Zhou began her career at Mays School of Business at Texas A&M. She joined the Jones School in 2003. “It’s amazing how things have changed since I came,” Zhou says, brimming with enthusiasm. “Being part of a growing business school is huge. Rice, it goes without saying, is a great university, and the Jones School is an exciting place to be professionally.” Being situated in Houston gives her access to the diverse companies that she needs for her fieldwork. “The divergent industries are valuable — traditional and new energy, NASA and the related software outsourcing companies, health care.”


But how does Zhou transfer her creative ideas, her insights and her groundbreaking research into the hands of the leaders of companies who can actually make use of it? “Right now,” said Zhou, “the primary method of disseminating this knowledge is teaching our  students.” She teaches an executive MBA (EMBA) elective on creativity and has taught an elective for full-time students on managing creativity. And the research is garnering notice outside academia as well in popular business magazines such as Huffington Post, Human Resource Executive and Science Daily.

But beyond getting the research into the hands of management, the starting point may in fact be in changing the mindset of organization leadership. “On one hand, managers say they greatly value creativity,” explains Zhou, “but on the other, they do not see themselves as the person who needs to be listening, nurturing and refraining from judging too early. That’s a key challenge. Until we can address it, I don’t think we can completely channel employee creativity along this total value chain to actually capture the value.”

By teaching executives through executive education or the EMBA, Zhou is reaching an audience of decision makers, which may help address the challenge of changing managers’ mindsets. Zhou says that EMBA students find two implementable ideas about creativity interesting: “One is that creativity does not happen randomly. I teach methods that help you overcome blocks to creativity. If you master them, you can enhance your ability to think creatively. Two is that employees need to sell or frame their [creative] idea in a way  that demonstrates that it fits into the system, rather than disregards it.

“EMBAs find those techniques useful. I also emphasize that usually when the really promising creative ideas first appear, they are still raw and may even sound silly and impossible. And the students agree that managers, as listeners, need to be more sensitive.” Helping  these students, who are managers and leaders of companies and organizations recognize the value in listening with sensitivity to their employees’ creative ideas is valuable knowledge Zhou’s research provides them that most leadership training does not address. 

Capturing the value
According to Zhou, there are two types of research. “One is looking back. I’m going to find out what organizations have done really well, and I’m going to figure out what theoretical framework can capture that. And then I’m going to chart all exceptional companies. But  you’re looking back to find out this manager has done that. It’s descriptive research.

“Creativity research in many ways is prescriptive. A lot of companies have not done this well, but through scientific method we found out if you exhibit this kind of leadership behavior or have that kind of co-worker or create this kind of team, then people’s creativity can  be enhanced. This is forward looking. We’re telling managers, if you do it this way, you will be great. This is prescriptive.”

Finding companies she can help does not have as systematic an approach as the research, however. “Sometimes they find me. Sometimes I go find them,” Zhou said. “We need to say, as a school, that we have this knowledge, let’s create a condition where we’ll both  win. It’s the socially responsible thing to do.”

When Zhou locates such a company, conducting the research consumes several months, maybe more. Her process is as follows: “Let’s say you agree to do it, you’re the manager. We first conduct interviews, followed by quantitative methods. We do some initial interviews to get to know the work flow, and what you do to understand its relevance. We measure the work environment. And then we figure out leadership, team configuration, what do they need for the purpose of enhancing creativity? Those are the initial steps, and  then we measure attitudes, behavior, employees’ perception about their leader’s style. Towards the end we also ask managers to evaluate employee creativity. We look at creativity as an outcome, not as your potential but as a behavior measure.”

The methods she uses are always rigorous. “This is like medicine,” Zhou explained. “If I say it will benefit you, the medicine will have gone through the whole FDA process to make sure your conclusion is valid. I’m very confident about the rigorous method used. If we say  this creativity will lead to someone’s psychological process and will change her behavior, the method will guarantee it unfolds that way sequentially. We’re confident of the results.”

Divergent thinking
It doesn’t stop there. Along with her role as associate editor of the Journal of Applied Psychology, Zhou has several research streams in the works. And that’s just the way she likes it: many counterintuitive irons in the fire. One follows uncertainty avoidance. “I wanted to find out if there is any way to make people who want to avoid uncertainty more creative?” The answer from the research results is yes, but as with much of her workplace research, it has to be within the right circumstances.

“We found that employees who were high in uncertainty avoidance actually demonstrated more creativity when their managers were empowering and trustworthy. When you think about it, it makes sense. In an organization, the definition of creativity is both new and  useful. It’s not just being unique or bizarre. If a manager empowers me, and I’m high in uncertainty avoidance I probably can use my desire to avoid uncertainty to truly come up with ideas that are useful that can work together with existing systems and know where the true constraints are and what has to stay where it is.”

A second line of research falls under satisfaction. “I need to have happy workers, but sometimes people are unhappy: my workload is too high, I’m frustrated, I’m not making progress, I don’t believe the current system is effective but I can’t do anything about it. We have this culture where we always want to see a happy face, so people fake it.” But her research challenges the notion that only happy employees are valuable. “The people who raise questions and express dissatisfaction may have the potential to be valuable, if they can help the organization identify an existing problem and find a way to fix it.

“The employees who may be saying things managers don’t want to hear may actually truly care about the organization. And these workers, especially if they are frontline employees, may be the best source to identify problems.”

A third stream of research is creativity in teams. “There is a long-held notion that diversity — however you define it: age, gender, race, creative, non-creative — within a group is valuable. But if you look at empirical results, it’s very mixed. We did this research to find out if a team’s diversity equals creativity. Diverse teams may have conflict or the people who have ideas that are unusual may not get heard. They may be dysfunctional. We found diversity does not automatically lead to creativity. You need to have transformational leaders to pull the team together and truly leverage the diversity in your team.”

Her latest line of research is the link between employee creativity and firm performance. Employee creativity and the process of capturing it is a crucial micro foundation for organizational success. “We look at financial performance. A long-held assumption is that when you have creative employees the firm will perform better. We demonstrate through our research that you really need to have a process of capturing creative ideas in a proactive way to translate into firm performance and your balance sheet.” This research stream diverges from Zhou’s customary approach. “Usually my outcome is creativity,” she explains, “except with this research creativity becomes the antecedent and firm performance becomes the consequence.”

Finally, extending the success of her first book, Handbook of Organizational Creativity, which is an impactful value in the field of workplace creativity, Zhou recently finished editing a second book with two co-authors called the Oxford Handbook of Creativity, Innovation  and Entrepreneurship. The book will come out next year and has the potential again to “shape the field in a new way.” The kind of contribution she has wanted to make since entering graduate school.

“Doing creativity research really makes you a better person,” she concludes enthusiastically. “It makes you more creative. It helps you spread positive energy. It makes you confident that there’s always a way to overcome challenges.” For example, Zhou says, “One of the creativity techniques is, when you see a problem don’t just take it as is. Try to redefine the problem: the problem re-definition method. Oftentimes, when you enlarge the problem space if gives you more possibility to solve it.”

“Try it,” she encourages, while sitting in her office, which is stacked with files, papers, journals, books and boxes. “Have you read the latest research on people with messy desks?” she asks. “It turns out that they are more creative!” As one of the foremost experts in creativity research, she should know.