CreativityPeer-Reviewed Research

Fertile Ground

Hands holding a plant sprout
  • A creative manager is more likely to recognize a truly creative idea. 
  • Managers, like consumers, favor ideas or products that are incremental.
  • As a manager, you should be aware of these biases so you will be more likely to recognize a creative idea or product when it appears.

Would you recognize a brilliant idea if it was staring you in the face? If you did, would you know what to do with it? The answer is more complex than it might seem.

A large and fast-growing sector of the U.S. workforce consists of  "knowledge workers," people whose jobs involve mental rather than physical labor. Knowledge workers do their jobs in an array of fields, including marketing, biotechnology, engineering and computer technology. And a surprising effort goes into enriching the value of these workers.

Wide-open office spaces, Wi-Fi-enabled bus rides to work, delicious (and free) victuals from the cafeteria: all reflect savvy managers’ appreciation and efforts to extract more value from their knowledge workers. Steve Jobs didn’t, after all, invent the iPhone. Rather, he recognized the value of the iPhone, which was created by Apple’s knowledge workers. 

It’s easy now to see what a revolutionary product the iPhone represented. Yet not all managers in Steve Jobs’ position would have recognized its value. Now, in a groundbreaking review of four decades of research, Rice Business Professor Jing Zhou and a team of collaborators have assembled guidelines for managers on the receiving side of creativity. The findings represent the first systematic review of literature about how decision-makers perceive worker creativity.

The main takeaways:

KNOW THYSELF. New product managers, designers and marketers need to know that their own personal characteristics will influence their ability to spot creativity and novelty. “Decision-makers without any creating experience should be aware that they might downplay creativity or inaccurately forecast its success,” Zhou and her coauthors write. Bluntly put, if you are not especially creative, chances are you won’t naturally recognize or appreciate creativity when it flowers in front of you. The characteristics and skills that propel a person into management do not, after all, necessarily include creativity. Yet a company’s bottom line may depend on a manager’s identification of creative and/or novel ideas. Luckily, Zhou’s team found, certain techniques can help even the most brass-tacks manager identify creative ideas. Cultivating an openness to experience, for example, correlates with the inclination to spot subordinates’ creative ideas.

DON’T BE SEXIST. Women’s ideas are routinely underrated (Luksyte et al., 2018; Proudfoot et al., 2015). Just as little Timmy is called on by the teacher more frequently than young Susie in elementary school, adult Timmy is more likely to see his creative contributions recognized than mature Susie – even when their ideas are of the same quality. When it comes to having creative ideas recognized, Zhou’s team notes, it helps to be a man. To counteract this loss of talent, managers should know that women knowledge workers benefit from managers or organizations whose characteristics favor creativity. These organizations are often headed by leaders who are themselves charismatic and creative, such as Elon Musk at Tesla or the late Jobs at Apple (Sijbom, Janssen, & Van Yperen, 2015a). The lesson: take measures to value women knowledge workers before someone else does.

DON’T BE TOO CONSERVATIVE. Spotting a truly creative idea is one thing. Implementing it is something else entirely. Knowledge workers often intuitively understand that it’s better to be on the leading edge than the bleeding edge for their work to be recognized. Researchers have confirmed this bias against highly novel or creative concepts through observation of lay people in controlled experiments, of experts and managers in organizational settings and of consumers facing purchasing decisions (Criscuolo et al., 2017; Hoeffler, 2003; Mueller et al., 2012). Consumers, as it happens, are much more comfortable buying incrementally new products than really new products (Alexander, Lynch, and Wang, 2008). Think of the endless “Fast and Furious” movie franchise or the forever new-and-improved iterations of familiar sodas. As a manager, beware this tendency to favor incremental ideas. Scan the horizon instead for products or ideas that are truly novel. Warning: they will likely make you uneasy. That’s often a good sign.

CREATE CREATIVITY. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a creative, you are. Managers, decision-makers and anyone else with power over a work environment are essential to the growth of new ideas. So cultivate a creative environment thoughtfully with the insights from Zhou’s team: self-awareness, gender respect and, above all, comfort with discomfort. Consider whether your organization offers conditions for radical new ideas to sprout. Ask whether you really want it to. Somewhere, another decision-maker does, and is clearing space for creativity to run wild.


Jing Zhou is the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology ­– Organizational Behavior at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. 

To learn more, please see: Zhou, J., Wang, X. M., Bavato, D., Tasselli, S., & Wu, J. (2019). Understanding the receiving side of creativity: A multidisciplinary review and implications for management research. Journal of Management, 45(6), 2570-2595.