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Creativity | Peer-Reviewed Research

Fertile Ground

What Kind Of Manager Recognizes Creativity?

Based on research by Jing Zhou, Xiaoye May Wang, Davide Bavato, Stefano Tasselli and Junfeng Wu

What Kind Of Manager Recognizes Creativity?

  • A creative manager is more likely to recognize a truly creative idea. 
  • Managers, like consumers, favor ideas or products that are incremental.
  • Managers need to be aware of these biases to boost their changes of spotting a creative idea or product when it appears. 

Would you recognize a brilliant idea if you were looking at it? And if you did, would you know what to do? The answer is more complex than it might seem.

A large and fast-growing sector of the U.S. workforce consists of "knowledge workers," whose jobs involve mental rather than physical labor. They do their work in an array of fields including marketing, biotechnology, engineering and computer technology. 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 managers’ 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. But not all managers in Steve Jobs’ position would have been able to 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. Product managers, designers and marketers should know that their own personal characteristics affect their ability to spot creativity and novelty. 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. “Decision-makers without any creating experience should be aware that they might downplay creativity or inaccurately forecast its success,” Zhou and her coauthors write. 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, certain techniques can help managers spot 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 gets 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. To get creative ideas recognized, Zhou’s team notes, it helps to be a man. In order 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 if they want their work to be recognized, it’s better to be on the leading edge than the bleeding edge. 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, too, 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, though, you should 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.

CREATE CREATIVITY. You many not think of yourself as a creative, but you are one. 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 by encouraging self-awareness, gender respect and, above all, comfort with discomfort. Does your organization offer conditions for radical new ideas to sprout? Do 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 researchJournal of Management, 45(6), 2570-2595.

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