How to Nurture Creative Performance in the Workplace

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Staff creativity may suffer if they feel importance of their role at work fails to meet colleagues’ assessment, research shows

Businesses that quickly adapt to change are among those that are able to survive challenging times. Take for example, how Finland’s national airline, or Finnair, has sought to adapt as one of the many global carriers grounded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company sold 1,600 of its business class meals within days at a supermarket near Helsinki’s main airport in October 2020 as an innovative way to avoid job cuts in its catering unit. However, the search for such out-of-the-box initiatives often hinges on creative staff who are able to come up with the innovative ideas that make the difference.

Past business research examining creative role identity – how people see themselves in terms of their imaginative influence at work – show workers with a positive perspective, who believe they have creative jobs, are more motivated to produce novel ideas, while those with a negative identity are less likely to be inventive.

Creative identity asymmetry can lead individuals to doubt their abilities and believe they are failing to meet the expectations of colleagues.

Prof. Dora Lau

However, a new study has tried to answer a critical question largely overlooked before: what role do colleagues, who can view and comment on another’s work, play in the relationship between employee creative role identity and creative performance?

“We wanted to find out if it matters whether individuals believe that other staff agree or disagree with their assessment of themselves as a creative employee,” says Dora Lau, Associate Professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School’s Department of Management, who carried out the research with Wang Yangxin, a CUHK Business School PhD candidate, and Prof. Kim Youngsang at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. “If yes, then how and when does it influence their creativity?”

The trio examined how the difference between how an individual’s own perceived creative expectations and the views of their colleagues can affect the relationship between creative identity, psychological strain and creative performance. The findings from two studies have been published in a paper titled Creative identity asymmetry: When and how it impacts psychological strain and creative performance.

Creative Identity Asymmetry

Prof. Lau says it is important to examine how an individuals’ creative performance can be influenced both by how they see themselves and how they believe others perceive them. When opinions contrast – leaving individuals feeling their talents have not been properly recognised by others – it can limit their creativity – and also the success of the company. She says research draws on a new idea of “creative identity asymmetry” – the difference between how people see their own creative roles and how colleagues perceive their efforts.

The researchers say is important to examine how an individuals’ creative performance can be influenced both by how they see themselves and how they believe others perceive them.

Creative identity asymmetry is important for workers because it provides a measure of how they are viewed and valued at a company. If they feel their abilities or efforts are not properly recognised by others, it can hurt their sense of self-worth and confidence – sparking psychological stress, which can affect their creative performance. “Creative identity asymmetry can lead individuals to doubt their abilities and believe they are failing to meet the expectations of colleagues,” says Prof. Lau, adding that as the extent of the perceived difference increases, so too do the levels of psychological strain they experience, leading to stress and anxiety.

The level of stress experienced by individuals as a result of negative creative identity asymmetry – when they do not believe colleagues recognise their creative abilities as much as they do – is greater than the pressure generated by positive creative identity asymmetry – when individuals feel their own assessment of their innovative talents does not meet their colleagues’ greater expectations, she says.

Such differences can unsettle staff and spark psychological stress – particularly among those who are most concerned about what others think of their abilities – leading to a lack of creative motivation and problems such as insecurity, frustration, depression and anxiety.

Psychological Stress

The first study saw 112 undergraduates at a university in southern China randomly placed into 36 discussion groups, and given 15 minutes to come up with six new and useful ideas to improve the quality of life for their fellow students. They rated their creativity and those in their group, before researchers randomly sent messages to them claiming their peers had ranked their creativity as being above, below, or equal to their self-appraisal.

After being told the other group members’ appraisals – and that creativity in a second task would influence its outcome, they spent five minutes devising a slogan to encourage students to exercise, then rated their stress levels during this task and their feeling about the assessment ratings.

Creative identity asymmetry can unsettle staff and spark psychological stress, the researchers say.

These results confirmed that there was a significant difference in psychological strain experienced by participants, Prof. Lau says. Specifically, those given positive and negative asymmetry rankings reported much higher psychological strain compared with participants given a balanced ranking. The findings also established a direct causal link between differences in positive and negative creative identity asymmetry and psychological strain.

A second study examined answers in 199 questionnaires completed at six Chinese organisations in several industries. The participants were asked to report their perceptions of creative identity asymmetry – say how much stress they felt as a result of other people’s assessment of their creativity at work. Meanwhile, supervisors were also asked to rate the participant’s creative performance.

These results showed that participants experienced less psychological strain when an individual’s assessment of their creative role matched those provided by their colleagues, but greater pressure when the two opinions differed.

Insights for Workplaces

Overall, the research offers new insights into creativity, identity asymmetry and stress. For example, it examines something overlooked in previous creativity studies – the effects perceived differences between an individual’s view and colleagues’ views of creative role identity have on people’s creative performance, Prof. Lau says. “We show that subjectively believed discrepancies can hinder employees’ creativity through heightened psychological strain,” she says.

The research also contrasts the impacts of positive and negative asymmetry – providing a more nuanced understanding of the irregular effects of perceived differences between an individual’s self-view and other people’s views and adds to our understanding of stress by verifying how creative identity asymmetry causes pressure and leads to psychological strain; past studies focused mostly on causes of stress, not what individuals felt about stress.


Job Crafting: How Much Is Too Much?

Prof. Lau says staff who take more notice of other people’s opinions at work are more likely to feel pressured after they learn their colleagues do not rate their creative abilities as much as they do, in contrast with people who are less concerned about the views of their colleagues. They will start to analyse the potential cause of stress and how it can have an impact on them achieving their personal goals and future well-being. They may start to doubt their abilities, and lose motivation to remain creative.

Those given a positive assessment may feel less stress, but see it as a challenge to show they can improve themselves, leaving them unsettled and questioning their opinions. The paper also offers insights for practical purposes – firstly that employees and supervisors must realise that what people believe about how others identify or misidentify them in terms of their creativity will influence their creative performance.

Supervisors and managers should carefully observe for differences in their employees’ creative identity, or ask staff directly about their perceptions of identity asymmetry. Once it is detected, managers can improve interpersonal communication, offer training programmes to help staff adopt appropriate coping strategies, or the use of 360-degree feedback tools so employees learn more about “how others actually see me”.