What is the magic bullet to a creative work place?


What makes a workplace creative? You know the one buzzing with activities, where the co-workers are throwing ideas at each other and the rooms are full of energy. Recent years work place research might provide the answer.

A person who has spent a lot of time researching this question is Teresa Amabile, professor in psychology at the Harvard Business School. Together with her partner Steven Kramer, she has studied the driving force of 238 individuals with advanced work tasks in seven different American companies, based on more than 12,000 diary notations.

The detailed results published in their book, The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, commitment, and creativity at work (which by the way is one of the best books on management that I have read), gives a unique insight into what drives and motivates us in our work life and what creates joy, dedication and creativity at work. The results are both startling and instructive.

Amabile and Kramer do not, like most other researchers, base their results on an analysis of external observable factors, but from what they call people’s inner work life, that is, how the individual employees react to and form internal contexts from things that happen at the workplace based on their own highly personal thoughts on what is happening around them (the organisation, the managers, the team, the tasks), what emotions (positive or negative, strong or weak) they experience and what drives them, i.e. how their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation determines what they do, how they do it, when they do it, and even If they do it.

These three key factors interact each day within each employee based on what is happening in the workplace and they directly affect the individual’s sense of value, well-being and work performance.

Even though these three factors are so important, they often appear to be hidden from both the colleagues and, not least, from the managers, but the power in them is evident from the diary notes.

Although the inner work life is to some extent modified by personality and what is happening in the individual’s privacy, events at work are crucial to the inner work life, and both the normally positive and the normally negative person are greatly influenced by what happens around each of them at work.

When thoughts and feelings are positive and the individuals sense a strong inner motivation, their performance is increased, expressed in each of the dimensions of creativity (coming up with new ideas), productivity (getting the job done with high quality and on time), commitment (despite difficulties fighting to do what is required in order to deliver) and collegiality (helping their co-workers and contributing to a well-functioning and supportive team).

Other studies show a strong link between happiness and creativity. The diary studies confirm this. On days when the employees are in a good mood, the probability is 50% higher that they will get a creative idea than on days when they are in a bad mood, an effect that also occurs in the following days in some sort of incubation effect.

Creativity also appears to be greater among employees who have positive thoughts about the tasks, the work colleagues, the managers and the workplace as a whole. Not least, creativity increases when employees see that managers appreciate and take their ideas seriously.

The interviews show that other factors of importance to the creativity of employees are enough time and resources. This increases the inner motivation, which other studies have shown to be a stronger driving force than outer motivations (perks and benefits). It should feel stimulating and meaningful to come up with new ideas.

Now that we have seen how important inner work life is for creativity, productivity, commitment and friendship, the question arises as to what strengthens this inner work life, i.e. what makes us happy, think positively about our work situation and gives us inner motivation.

Again, the interviews provide exciting answers. Pretty unexpected, it turned out that the by far the most important factor was the many small wins, the feeling that you can influence your work situation, that you see a result of your efforts and things are going in the right direction (hence the title of their book). Experiencing success brings job satisfaction, pride and dedication and increases inner motivation.

Two additional factors could be identified, but were not as dominant. One of these was external support for the project, which could include having clear goals for the work, getting help from others, having enough resources, enough time, freedom to design the work by its own head and constructive handling of problems at the workplace.

The third factor was inner nourishment, i.e. all factors aimed directly to the person in question such as respect, encouragement, security, consideration and other forms of social or emotional support. Man is basically a flock animal, and regardless of our position, our duties or our personality, we need to connect to the people we have around us. We all want to feel appreciated and we are also willing to go an extra mile for people who mean something to us.

Amabile and Kramer found that this inner nourishment has four different aspects, each of which directly affects our inner work life; Respect, trust, emotional support and team spirit. As managers and leaders, we can influence these aspects both positively and negatively through our actions.

When thoughts, emotions and motivation interact positively, internal work life is enhanced, leading to higher creativity, increased well-being, better mood and greater engagement. Conversely, one can easily have opposite effects when successes fail, external support is insufficient and employees can‘t get enough internal nourishment.

This gives direct results in terms of poor mood, lack of motivation, less creativity and lower productivity. If stuck in such vicious circles, the result can easily destroy a previously good workplace and even completely crush a previously successful company.

Unfortunately, negative circumstances are far more effective in influencing inner work life in a negative direction, than the positive circumstances in strengthening it, which means that as a manager you can’t relax in the work of maintaining the positive and breaking the vicious circles related to the internal work life.

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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