#111 from R&D Innovator Volume 3, Number 8          August 1994

The Delicate Balance in Managing for Creativity
by Teresa M. Amabile, Ph.D.

Dr. Amabile, originally a chemist, is professor of psychology at Brandeis University, studying how social environments influence problem-solving creativity.  She consults and conducts workshops on the R&D work environment.  Her publications include The Social Psychology of Creativity (Springer-Verlag, New York, 1983) and Growing Up Creative (Crown, New York, 1989).

For the past 18 years, I’ve been studying the creative process and the ways it’s influenced by the work environment.  One of my research techniques is to ask R&D scientists to describe a "high-creativity" and "low-creativity" event from their experience.  I then analyze the transcripts of the interviews, looking for common threads and distinctions. 

After I talked to Scientist A, who had supervised a low-creativity discovery, and Scientist B, who had overseen a high-creativity discovery, I was struck by the similarity between the stories.  The technical problems, project team composition, and available resources were quite comparable.  Although both scientists spoke about goal-setting, there was a subtle difference.  Scientist A remarked, “Our project suffered because goals weren’t being set; it’s hard to work without certain goals in mind.  The supervisor wasn’t good at making decisions.”  By contrast, Scientist B said, “As the manager of this successful project, I gave the people involved a clear idea of what the end product was going to be.  I attempted to get each person involved in elements within their expertise, and I let people set their own goals and manage their own business.”

At first blush, it appears that the project managers in both of these stories “backed off” and left much of the decision-making to the team members.  In fact, we saw this practice repeatedly in both the high- and low-creativity stories from the 120 R&D employees who participated in the study.  What differed?  The supervisors set overall strategic project goals very clearly in most high-creativity events.

Loose operational goal setting wasn’t the only common factor:  evaluation, rewards, and pressure all appeared in both the successful and unsuccessful events.  But as I delved deeper, I discovered clear differences in the way each of these factors was used in project management.

The Key: Motivation from Within

The research I have undertaken with my colleagues and students started with the assumption that all individuals are capable of creative behavior.  Even though certain thinking styles, personality styles, and educational experiences provide some people with greater “creative resources” than others, everyone’s creative potential can be stimulated or stunted by the work environment.

I began with controlled laboratory experiments, which showed that creativity can be undermined by a focus on external evaluation, surveillance, contract-for-reward, win-lose competition, or restricted choice.  This research led to the intrinsic motivation principle of creativity:  people are most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and personal challenge of the work itself—not by external pressures.  In short, while intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity, extrinsic motivation is detrimental to it.

When we moved our research from the psychology lab to the workplace, we discovered some complicating factors.  In our first major study (described above) our content analysis of the high-creativity stories and the low-creativity stories showed that intrinsic motivators (such as challenging work and a sense of autonomy) were indeed quite common in the high-creativity events and notably absent in the low-creativity events.  In the latter gropu, by contrast, certain extrinsic motivators (such as threatening evaluation, competition, or arbitrary time pressure) were abundant.

We did not expect to see extrinsic motivators in the high-creativity stories.  Nonetheless, in those stories, certain extrinsic motivators were actually more common.  These motivators included reward and recognition for creative work, informative work evaluation, and a sense of meaningful urgency.  In examining these motivators, and the overall patterns of work environments that support or inhibit creativity, we arrived at four balance factors that seem important in project-team management.  I believe that striking the appropriate balance can contribute to the creativity of project team members and, ultimately, to successful innovation across the organization.


As I have indicated, goal-setting is important—project creativity suffers if goals are too loose at the strategic level, or too tight at the day-to-day operational level.  Ideally, project managers can find a balance point that combines loose and tight control.  At the outset, articulate a clear strategic vision and overall goal for the project; then allow the team members as much autonomy as possible in deciding how to meet the goal.


As might be expected from our earlier experiments, the low-creativity stories typically showed much evaluation pressure; people were concerned about overly critical reactions to their ideas.  As one interviewee said, “Part of the problem was that everyone was looking for a breakthrough.  Expectations were too high.  Upper management was very involved in the work and would constantly ask for results.” 

On the other hand, we also found an absence of evaluation and feedback in many of the low-creativity stories.  In these situations, the team members believed no one knew or cared what they were doing. 

The crucial balance seems to involve a great deal of frequent, work-focused evaluation and truly informative, constructive, feedback.  Ideally, these evaluation sessions should involve peers (as well as supervisors) in discussing the work.  We saw this pattern frequently in the high-creativity stories:  “We had a mutual respect for each other’s abilities and a willingness to listen but not hang on someone’s idea;” or “Well, that’s a good idea, but here are some problems....”


In some of the low-creativity stories, our interviewees felt that material rewards had been dangled before them like carrots on a stick.  As could be predicted from the intrinsic motivation principle of creativity, this led them to feel externally controlled and likely reduced their creativity.  Yet many of the low-creativity stories were marked by an absence of reward and recognition for good work. 

Curiously, in many of the high-creativity stories, project team members knew they would be rewarded for doing well—even though these rewards rarely took the form of large monetary payments:   “Part of the reward is having your manager listen to what you’ve done.  Having access to your supervisors increases internal motivation, so managers should be available on an informal basis.”  “It was good to hear management say, ‘You made a good discovery this month, and we are going to show it to top management, and you are going to make the presentation.’  The pat on the back, the recognition, felt good.”

Apparently, creativity is best fostered when R&D employees know that rewards and recognition will follow from good, creative efforts—without being promised specific rewards for specific results.


Various forms of external pressure appeared in the low-creativity stories, primarily time and competitive pressure:  “There was pressure to get the product produced quickly.  It was a long-range product, but this is a short-range company.”  “We had two groups trying to achieve the same thing.  This fostered competition.  It became a win-lose situation, and we all ended up losing.”  Yet in some of the low-creativity stories, there was a complete absence of urgency.  And pressures also appeared in the high-creativity stories.  What’s going on?

Both the meaning (or source) of the pressure, and its intensity, are important.  Usually, time and competitive pressure in the low-creativity stories were seen as arbitrary; no one knew exactly why a project had to be completed in only two months, or why three teams were in direct, win-lose competition on one project.  In the high-creativity stories, the pressure usually arose from a realistic sense of urgency; the organization or society at large desperately needed a solution to the problem.

Regardless of the meaning of the pressure, however, creativity is impossible under extreme pressure--after a certain point, there is simply no time for trying unorthodox approaches.

Motivational Synergy

We still believe, on the basis of all our experimental and non-experimental evidence, that intrinsic motivation is necessary for high levels of creativity.  Yet certain forms of extrinsic motivation may also heighten creativity:  reward for good work; constructive, informative evaluation; control in the form of clear strategic goals; and pressure that reflects a real need for a solution to an important problem.

Other forms of extrinsic motivation are likely to harm creativity:  harsh negative evaluation, frequent surveillance, win-lose competition between individuals and teams, rewards that work as control mechanisms, tight control of the work itself, and extreme or arbitrary time pressure.

If R&D managers can learn the varieties of human motivation and the subtle ways in which the work environment impacts motivation, they will have a head start toward the crucial balance that encourages the highest levels of creativity.

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