Writing in the Academy of Management Journal, Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and James Berry of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill report “intrinsic motivation is most likely to be associated with higher levels of creativity when employees are also prosocially motivated to take the perspective of others.” At least in a workplace situation, taking others’ needs into account, and seeing things from their point of view, seems to be a catalyst to creativity.
They cite three studies that found an association between prosociality (the willingness to do something for others without a benefit to yourself) and creativity. For example, one study found that security force officers “were more likely to earn higher supervisor creativity ratings when they also had high levels of prosocial motivation.”
Unfortunately, the article doesn’t explain why this association might exist–which is kind of a problem. Correlations or associations exist all over the place between things that are not related. The classic example is the relationship between the number of pirates and global temperature (see right). As pirate numbers decline we tend to see an increase in global temperature. Is one causing the other?
Come to think of it, maybe. We’ve been hearing more and more about Somali pirates and the 2000′s didn’t warm as much as the 1990′s. But seriously, in order for an association to mean something there also has to be a potential mechanism–an idea of how one might cause the other.
Another thing is that, though I haven’t read the studies themselves, it seems as though the research has only unearthed an association between the two. It’s not clear whether one is causing the other or even if there might be something else that’s causing both.
It’s easy to see how, if prosociality causes creativity, as the article seems to assume, businesses have been going about promoting people the wrong way. Most businesses promote the most productive and fire the least productive, which makes sense superficially, but this creates competition in the work place which does not lead to prosocial behaviour.
The results are still interesting in themselves though having been reproduced in three separate studies. I can’t for the life of me think of how one would cause a change in the other.
It’ll be interesting to see if more research comes out on this stuff. In the mean time, xkcd: