Campus & Community

HBS’s Teresa Amabile ‘tracks creativity in the wild’

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Longitudinal study explodes myths about motivating creative workers

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.