The Key to Increasing Creativity at Work

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Research by CUHK Business School reveals how an open and caring environment can unleash employees’ creativity, even with limited resources

In this age of rapid technological advancement, the demand from companies for their employees to be more creative has never been stronger. Now research by CUHK Business School reveals how even limited resources can be used to unleash employees’ creativity. Companies that actively engage in creating an environment that is viewed by employees as being supportive and open with information, is more likely to promote their staff’s creativity skills.

In other words, firms’ High-Commitment Work Systems (HCWS), which include a bundle of internally consistent human resource practices, including extensive training, employee stock options, profit-sharing plans, and developmental performance appraisals, can positively predict individual employees’ creativity.

However, the impact of HCWS on individual creativity is based on how closely together the team works, and how complex their task. This is the finding of a research conducted by Song Chang, Assistant Professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School and his collaborators from Nanjing University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Collecting data from a random sample of 55 high-technology firms, 238 teams and 1059 individuals in one of China’s eastern provinces, the research investigates a multilevel combinational model of employee creativity. It hypothesize that firm’s HCWS are conducive to individual creativity. But the researchers also assume that this positive impact may be combined with other factors, including team cohesion and team task complexity.

Stated simply, the more united a work team is, and the most complex tasks they have, the greater the impact of using High-commitment work systems (HCWS) will have on the individual creativity of each team member.

Working with HR executives on the specific data collection plan at each firm, the researchers distributed three separate survey questionnaires to the respondents. These respondents included HR executives, supervisors and individual employees. They were asked to rate the HCWS used in the firms, team cohesion and team task complexity as well as individual creativity. The researchers offered different measurement scales for respondents to measure the above three variables. For example, a sample item for firms’ HCWS is: “In our company, we emphasize the appraisal of team performance rather than individual performance;” for team cohesion and team task complexity: “How much technical knowledge do the jobs in this unit require;” for creativity: ”This subordinate seeks new ideas and ways to solve problems.”


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The surveys’ results provide support for the hypotheses. The results showed that providing HCWS would be beneficial to employee creativity. What’s more important, the impact of HCWS on employee creativity was improved when teams were more cohesive and when the collective tasks handled by the team were more complex.

Why is this the case? According to the research paper, firms with HCWS would create a policy of clearing communicating to their employees that the company was willing to devote valuable resources to help them to develop and grow.

This caring environment helps learning and knowledge sharing in the workplace. And in turn, this supportive policy promotes employee creativity. However, employees within a single organization that are subjected to the same set of HR practices may still differ in their performance.

When team members are encouraged by HCWS to learn new information and skills, teams with higher cohesion may benefit more because unified teams can create “a shared context where individuals can interact with each other and engage in constant group discussions. Therefore team members are likely to communicate more effectively and develop more innovative ideas.

At the same time, teams vary significantly in the amount of complexity inherent in their jobs. To complete challenging and demanding tasks, employees may need to have better ability and motivation to come up with creative solutions. Therefore, when tasks are challenging and when companies also invest heavily in HCWS, the impact of HCWS on employee creativity will be optimized because employees really need to have the necessary specific skills and creative-talent to develop new ideas and solve such challenging problems.

Practical Implications

Understanding such relationships among HCWS, team cohesion, task complexity, and employee creativity, companies can actually use it to unleash their employees’ creativity – even with limited time or finances.

According to the paper, investment in HCWS is costly, and companies with limited resources should be well aware of the conditions when such investment will have higher (or lower) payoffs and prioritize their allocation of resources.

“Overall,” say the researchers, “investment in strategic human resource management alone is not sufficient; HR functions or directors can be strategic partners of focal firms only when they have the ‘HR intelligence’ to diagnose the specific external and internal conditions and help firms make optimized choices in managing people.