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Teresa Amabile says that 'positive feelings - joy, love - are positively related to creativity, and the negative emotions - anger, fear, sadness - are negatively related to day-by-day creativity.' (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

HBS's Teresa Amabile 'tracks creativity in the wild'

Longitudinal study explodes myths about motivating creative workers

By Beth Potier
Harvard News Office

If you were paid more money, would you produce more creative work?

If that report languishing on your desk for months were suddenly due by the end of the week, would it be better, crisper, more innovative? What if your job depended on it?

Teresa Amabile, the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), has some surprising answers based on years of research: No, no, and no again.

Amabile, who has devoted her 30-year career to understanding creativity, has toiled for the past 20 years at the intersection of creativity and business. Since coming to HBS in 1995 from the psychology department at Brandeis University, she's engaged in a longitudinal study to "track creativity in the wild," she says. Poring over 12,000 electronic diaries submitted by workers in seven companies, she's encountered some myth-busting answers to what makes creativity tick in the work environment - and what grinds it to a halt.

Money, it turns out, does not foster creativity; Amabile found that people doing creative, innovative work do not focus daily on salary or a potential bonus. Ditto for severe deadlines, which despite common perceptions generally stifle creativity. Competition and fear of retribution also hinder employees from doing their most creative work, she found.

While these findings might chafe against popular management wisdom, they support Amabile's core hypothesis, formulated in social-psychological laboratory experiments, that creativity is a product of intrinsic motivation. "That's being motivated to do the work because it's interesting, it's positively challenging, it's captivating," she says. On the flip side, extrinsic motivators - expected evaluation, competition, anticipated reward - tend to decrease creativity.

Dear Diary

Amabile says that joining the HBS faculty opened up resources, autonomy, and connections for her to pursue a "really big research question" that would bring her previous work to a new level: "What happens, day by day, in organizations where people are trying to do creative work, that influences the way they feel about their work, the way they think about it, how creative they're going to be, and how productive they're going to be?" she asks.

Because creativity, even among employees whose jobs demand it regularly, is a relatively rare phenomenon, Amabile fashioned a study that hinged on daily electronic questionnaires, submitted by employees in diary form. Despite the onerous burden on the employees, "we got amazing participation," she says, with 75 percent of the questionnaires completed. In the end, the research surveyed 238 people in 26 project teams at seven companies: three high-tech, two chemical, and two consumer product companies. Participants remained in the study on average four months.

Questionnaires - the researchers received more than 12,000 daily diaries - took about 10 minutes each day to fill out, asking participants numerical questions like how many hours they worked that day, how many of their teammates they worked with that day, and how would they rate their own performances, their work environments, and their moods and emotions for the day.

Participants were also asked to describe the work they did each day and to detail one event of the day that stood out in their minds. "That's really what we've spent the last several years analyzing," says Amabile.

The diary study has produced several articles: on how leaders can support creativity, on how time pressure can thwart (and sometimes support) creative thinking, on designing organizations that both foster creativity and attend to business imperatives. The latest, still under review, looks at the effects of mood on creativity.

"What we find, in essence, is that positive feelings - joy, love - are positively related to creativity, and the negative emotions - anger, fear, sadness - are negatively related to day-by-day creativity," says Amabile, noting that these findings run counter to the popular "tortured artist" image. She notes that there are a few exceptional circumstances where fear and anger seem to stimulate creativity, but they're rare.

She's now working to synthesize the study's ideas into a book that explores what happens in the workplace to influence people's feelings of intrinsic motivation. "We also want to look at what influences feelings of joy, love, anger, sadness, and fear," she says. "What is it that happens that makes for really good days and really bad days? And what is the impact on performance?"

Management mindshift

To leaders who accuse her of advocating a soft, coddling management style, Amabile pushes back with research.

"What we've discovered is that people want to be busy in their work. They want to be really deeply engaged in important and complex work," she says. "So it doesn't mean coddling people. It means giving them hard work to do and plenty of work to do and having high expectations for them, but at the same time, setting up an environment that's going to facilitate their ability to get that work done without having to deal with a lot of garbage."

Managers and leaders, she says, need to protect their employees' time, space, and mental energy for creative work, championing projects, shielding teams from unnecessary distractions, monitoring employees' feelings about their work, and protecting their resources.

"This really requires a mindshift on the part of managers," says Amabile. "Leaders need to start seeing themselves as service personnel. It's the manager serving the needs of the people who are doing the complex work in the trenches day by day."

Driving human progress

Despite what may seem the obvious appeal of this topic to business leaders as well as employees, Amabile reports that there's been very little research on the subject of day-by-day workplace creativity and innovation besides hers. After eight years of working on the diary study, she's got a hunch why: It's very difficult research to do.

Nonetheless, she remains excited about the work and - mindful of the substantial time and resource commitments from her study participants as well as HBS - unswerving in her determination to do it right.

"I'm still very jazzed about this research," she says. "In my view, creativity is one of the driving forces of human progress. Very little gets done in the world that's really pushing the frontiers forward without significant human creativity."

And, she adds, the exhaustive nature of the diary study has the potential to open the workplace to inquiry in new ways. "I think that what it's going to allow us to do is to get a window into daily subjective experience at work that no one's ever had before," she says. "It goes well beyond creativity."


Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College