Creativity and InnovationPeer-Reviewed Research

Child's Play

Young boy playing with building blocks.
  • Creativity is the lifeblood of modern business — the spark behind innovative ideas. 
  • Today’s managers have a mandate to cultivate creativity in their work force.
  • Managers can nurture creativity, even in workers who appear less creative, by building a supportive environment. 

Give a kid a toy car, a stuffed bear, or an armful of blocks, and she is off on an imaginative romp, staging epic battles, building palaces or creating new worlds.

Coaxing creativity from adults is more challenging. But if creativity in children develops their spirits, creativity in adults enriches productivity — especially at the office.

It’s simple math. Creativity is where ideas come from; ideas form the basis for innovation. In an increasingly competitive world economy, it’s innovation that allows businesses to survive and thrive. This makes creativity a prized commodity in the job market. For managers, cultivating creativity in their workforce is a crucial professional skill.

Identifying the best circumstances to make creativity bloom is one of the driving questions in a study by Rice Business Professor Jing Zhou and colleague Inga J. Hoever, a professor at the Barcelona School of Management in Spain.

To explore the mystery of creativity, the two scholars first reviewed the hefty body of research by organizational psychologists and management scholars who’ve studied innovation in employees and teams. Most early research in this field, published since 2000, focused on the creativity of the actor — the individual or the team — or else revolved around the work environment.

Current academic research takes a more holistic look. By studying the interaction between the character traits of the worker or the team, the leader or the supervisor, and the prevailing atmosphere at the workplace, researchers are unveiling new insights.

Studies show, for example, that the benefits of benevolent leadership expand when workers recognize creativity as an important component of their role. Not only that, creativity is highest in employees who experience high levels of both positive and negative moods and feel supported by their supervisors. Other research finds that leaders who empower their workers get a greater payback in creativity.

To explore these findings further, Zhou and Hoever developed a typology that sorts out research about workplace creativity based on interactions between the worker (which they call the “actor”) and the workplace (which they call “context”).

The best-case scenario is a positive actor in a positive context, a mix that is synergistic for creativity. Worst case: When a positive actor languishes in a negative context or, similarly, when a negative actor stews in a positive context. At the extreme end of possibility, a negative actor in a negative context is downright antagonistic to creativity, Zhou and Hoever found.

There’s one final type of employee-workplace interaction: the “configurational” experience, which includes factors that are neutral in shaping creativity, but, when combined with other factors, cause a kind of chemical reaction that boosts or blocks creativity.

Zhou’s research serves up some bad news and good news for managers. Choosing and hiring employees who are creative is not enough, it turns out. If your workplace is discouraging,  creativity will wither in almost anyone. On the brighter side, cultivate a nurturing environment and creative tendrils may sprout even in the most no-nonsense workers. Best of all, good managers can build a nurturing greenhouse environment.  Practically speaking, it means that companies can and should train supervisors to cultivate creativity in their management choices.

Plenty of research gaps remain, however. To fill them, Zhou has outlined an ambitious agenda for future research, including a close look at the impact of workplaces on collective creativity; exploring as-yet unidentified factors in workers and work settings that spark creative thinking; and seeking ways to vanquish the effects of unsupportive environments.

Making creativity happen at work, in other words, isn’t child’s play.


Jing Zhou is the Houston Endowment Professor of Management at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University. 

To learn more, please see: Zhou, Jing, and Hoever, Inga J. (2014). Research on Workplace Creativity: A Review and Redirection.  Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1, 333-59.