13 Ways of Looking at Creativity

Jing Zhou, photo by Tommy LaVerne

Creativity is Jing Zhou’s business. As the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, Zhou studies the ways managers can foster creativity and innovation among employees. But the factors that promote — and inhibit — creativity are often the opposite of what you’d expect.

A. Conscientious employees need permission to be creative. Managers value conscientious workers, and rightly so: they’re determined, driven and high-achieving. But they aren’t always creative, especially in workplaces where conformity and self-control are prized and risk-taking is frowned upon. “Conscientious people are responsible, organized and they try hard, but we [Jennifer George, fellow Rice business professor, now retired] demonstrate that under certain conditions, those traits can be bad for creativity,” Zhou said. To liberate the creative impulses of highly conscientious employees, managers need to actively encourage flexibility and free thinking and to support them when they try something new.

B. Diverse teams aren’t always more creative. While diverse teams have the potential to be more creative than homogenous groups, they depend on inspiring, motivating and unifying managers — what researchers call “transformational” leaders — to actually unlock that potential. “Team diversity itself does not result in team creativity,” Zhou said. “Rather, the leader needs to exhibit transformational leadership behaviors.”

C. Embrace bad moods and dissatisfied employees. Don’t overlook disgruntled workers, Zhou warned: They can be the source of a company’s most groundbreaking innovations. In a 2002 study, Zhou and George found that bad moods often produced good ideas — and vice versa. The reasoning? “Positive feelings serve as a signal that everything is going well,” they wrote. “Negative moods signal that the status quo is problematic and that additional effort needs to be exerted to come up with new and useful ideas.” 

D. A little underemployment can be a good thing. When employees work beneath their capacity, they can get bored — but they can also get creative. Moderate underemployment can drive workers to redesign their jobs to better suit their skills, which can help both the worker and the company. (Large discrepancies between a worker’s ability and the work itself are bad for everyone, however.)  

E. An ounce of prevention can be the death of creativity. As Zhou’s research shows, managers can stifle employees’ creative impulses if they focus too much on preventing harm and not enough on promoting innovation. Prevention- focused managers tend to be cautious toward new ideas, which they associate with danger. Managers are more likely to spot game-changing ideas if they have what Zhou calls “promotion focus”: a level of comfort with new experiences, which they approach with a sense of