Having many roles can spark your creativity

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New research explores the intricate relationship between multiple identities and creative performance, as well as the mechanism behind it

“Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns,” says Edward de Bono, an author and doctor who invented the term “lateral thinking”, a creative problem-solving approach by looking at unique perspectives and forging unforeseen connections.

Creativity is widely recognised as both a secret weapon for overcoming challenges and a catalyst for a brighter future. Employee creativity serves as the foundation for innovation, playing a pivotal role in enhancing organisational competitiveness, ensuring survival, and driving sustainable growth.

Several studies have explored how individuals’ identity influences their creative performance, but have not fully unveiled the relationship with multiple identities. While an identity refers to how individuals perceive themselves concerning a specific role they are associated with, multiple identities refer to how individuals define themselves based on several roles they have at once.

The more the information and knowledge individuals could access and retrieve, the more likely they could generate original ideas.

Professor Dora Lau

A group of researchers, including Dora Lau, Associate Professor (Teaching) in the Department of Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, sought to find out whether multiple-identity holders are more creative, and if so, when and why this benefit occurs.

Creativity is widely recognised as both a secret weapon for overcoming challenges and a catalyst for a brighter future.

The study titled Are multiple-identity holders more creative? The roles of ambivalence and mindfulness was conducted by Professor Lau, in collaboration with Dr Wang Yangxin of the Central South University in China, and Professor Kim Youngsang of the Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea.

“Multiple identities provide people with multiple role perspectives and identity standards, and thus make them have multiple cognitive schemas and emotional frames, which further enhance their ambivalent experiences and creative performance,” says Professor Lau.

Ambivalence and creative performance

Existing literature suggests that individuals construct their self-identity based on various social roles, and several identities can be simultaneously salient. A person may see themselves not only from a single lens, such as their job, but also various other aspects of their identity, including their roles in the family, community, or even social club.

As a result, people with multiple identities may experience ambivalence—a simultaneous experience of opposite feelings or attitudes toward a given object, event, idea, or person—which primarily manifests in individuals’ cognitions and emotions. Cognitive ambivalence involves coexisting positive and negative thoughts, while emotional ambivalence involves conflicting or mixed feelings. A sense of inconsistency stemming from cognitive ambivalence will motivate individuals to actively seek information from their memory and current experience, providing more raw materials to generate new ideas.

“The more the information and knowledge individuals could access and retrieve, the more likely they could generate original ideas,” says Professor Lau. “Cognitive ambivalence also encourages individuals to simultaneously acknowledge and embrace opposing orientations, balance them actively, and enhance the usefulness of their ideas.”

nickel crisis

Individuals experiencing emotional ambivalence usually feel such a situation strange, prompting multiple-identity holders to interpret the environment as unusual and making them cautious. “Emotional ambivalence sustains individuals’ efforts in carefully analysing the environment and thus increases their persistence in creating new and useful solutions,” she says.

Multiple-identity holds greater ambivalence

In theory, both cognitive and emotional ambivalence should mediate the positive relationship between multiple identities and creative performance. Nevertheless, the research results revealed a more complex scenario.

The team conducted two studies to test their hypotheses with participants from mining and construction companies in China. In both studies, employees were invited to complete the questionnaire measuring their multiple identities and ambivalence, while their supervisors were invited to evaluate the employees’ creative performance.

The first study supported the premise that multiple-identity holders possess greater cognitive and emotional ambivalence, which enhances their creative performance. The second study also backed the same positive relationship, however, the link between multiple identities and creativity is mediated by emotional ambivalence rather than cognitive ambivalence.

“Perhaps respondents easily mixed their emotional and cognitive ambivalence experiences, two variables that are highly correlated,” says Professor Lau. “The effects of emotional ambivalence are strong, which cover the effect of cognitive ambivalence.”

Moderating role of mindfulness

The researchers then moved to investigate when the relationships between multiple identities, ambivalence and creative performance were stronger or weaker. Having considered existing literature, the researchers argued that mindfulness may strengthen the relationship between ambivalence and creative performance, and therefore strengthen the indirect impact of multiple identities.

Employees should bring their “multiple selves” to work rather than limit themselves to a certain and single role.

Mindfulness includes characteristics such as openness to new information, creation of new categories and an awareness of multiple perspectives. Highly mindful people are more attentive and sensitive to various perspectives compared to those with low mindfulness, which helps them understand the complexity and ambiguity of ambivalent experiences, preventing them from making simple and general conclusions.

The analyses proved that mindfulness plays a role in influencing the connection between having multiple identities and creative performance through emotional ambivalence. More specifically, when mindfulness levels are higher, the indirect relationship between multiple identities and creative performance through emotional ambivalence becomes more pronounced, but not for cognitive ambivalence.

However, in a separate study, the researchers did not find evidence that mindfulness moderates the direct relationship between ambivalence and creative performance. This highlights the complicated moderating effect of mindfulness. “It is also possible that if an individual is well aware of their inconsistent thinking, they would be more confused and spend more resources in organising their thoughts, which may decline their creative performance,” Professor Lau explains.

Anticipating drawbacks

In addition to presenting a fresh theoretical approach, the study also provides valuable insights for practical application. As multiple-identity holders are likely to be more creative, the researchers suggest that employees could enhance their ability to generate innovative ideas by thinking from the viewpoints of multiple roles. For instance, a male product designer can view his work in the roles of a designer, male, son, father, subordinate or supervisor.

Meanwhile, managers are recommended to assess whether candidates with multiple identities are more likely to align well with creative occupations. “Managers could encourage employees to bring their ‘multiple selves’ to work rather than limit the employees to a certain and single role,” says Professor Lau.


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However, Professor Lau also reminds managers to pay more attention to the psychological well-being of multiple-identity holders because ambivalence can have negative influences. For instance, multiple identities, particularly those mutually conflicting ones, can often result in anxiety and confusion.

“Employees with multiple identities may face lots of confusion or indecisiveness because of their ambivalent experience,” she says. “Therefore, managers are suggested to provide some stress management programme or mindfulness training to those employees to help them deal with their confusion.”