People managers need to understand people’s intrinsic interests and motivation and match them to their assignments thoughtfully to the extent that they can
Engagement is being intently involved in the work itself. When people are strongly engaged in their work, they’re captivated by it in a way
Originally educated as a chemist, Professor Teresa Amabile received her doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. She studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance. Teresa’s research encompasses creativity, productivity, innovation and inner work life – the confluence of emotions, perceptions and motivation that people experience as they react to events at work. I spoke to her about creativity and finding happiness at work.
Abhijit Bhaduri: Is it possible for an average person to be creative? Can creativity be taught?
Teresa Amabile: There are some common myths about creativity. One myth is that some of us are born creative while most of us aren’t and there is nothing we can do about it. There is a lot of research showing it’s not true. Creativity depends on a number of things. There are three components a person needs in order to be creative:
Domain Expertise: Expertise in the domain involves formal education in a particular area. Learning how to learn in the area is a part of expertise and each of us comes with talents that are partly inborn, partly learnt. No matter how talented Mozart might have been as a little boy, if he had not been exposed to a lot of training early on, exposed to a lot of music that he could listen to, he would have never developed what he did develop at such an early age. So, that expertise component is very important.
Creative Thinking Skills & Styles: The second component is creative thinking skills and creativity styles. Creativity is simply coming up with something that is new and workable. Creativity skills include a set of techniques like brainstorming, using analogies & metaphors that anyone can learn and get better at. They also include being perseverant when a problem gets difficult. It is a style of working, a style of approaching problems. All of that is partly in-born and partly developed by experience.
Intrinsic Motivation: The third component is what I primarily focus on in my research and that is intrinsic motivation. It is the drive to do something primarily because it is interesting, enjoyable, personally challenging and satisfying in some way. When people are primarily intrinsically motivated in what they are doing, they are much more likely to be creative than when they are primarily extrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something because you want to make money, get a good performance review, etc. Those are all reasons external to the work itself.
We are all driven by both intrinsic and extrinsic motives in what we do. What I discovered in my research with adults and children is that if you put people in conditions that lead them to focus on the extrinsic motivators, their intrinsic motivation for what they are doing can actually decline and along with it the creativity can decline. People will be most creative when they are motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction and personal challenge of the work itself and not by extrinsic motivators.
Abhijit: What are some of the things that people managers in organizations can do to encourage creative thinking?
Teresa: At a starting point, they need to understand people’s intrinsic interests, their intrinsic motivation. The first thing is to match people to their assignments thoughtfully and well to the extent that you can.
After you’ve done that, what you need to do is to set up a work environment that is autonomous and allows them the flexibility to come up with new ideas. If people feel completely micro-managed in every aspect of what they’re doing, they feel there is no room for creativity and no purpose in trying to be creative. Therefore, they will not be creative and their productivity will suffer because they will be less motivated by what they are doing.
So, giving people optimally challenging and intrinsically interesting assignments and allowing them a good degree of autonomy in the work gets you a long way towards supporting creativity. There are other things you can do as well. Those are the starting points.
Abhijit: The premise of your book The Progress Principle is that when you feel that you are making progress, you feel motivated and the other way around when you feel you are blocked. What prompted you to explore this particular area?
Teresa: I wanted to really understand in a very microscopic way, what makes people happy, motivated, productive and creative at work. We’ve researched on people working on the most important innovation projects. We found that when people had the most positive perceptions of their work environment, their organization, their co-workers, they felt the strongest intrinsic motivation and were most likely to come up with creative ideas or solve problems in creative ways.
If people were in a better emotional state on Monday, not only were they more likely to come up with a creative idea that day, they were even more likely to come up with a creative idea the next day regardless of the next day’s emotions.
On days when people had a more negative psychological state, they were less likely to be creative, productive, demonstrate commitment to work or be good colleagues to each other. People had to feel that they are contributing to something that they value in their work.
So, one of the important things managers can do is to help people see the purpose of what they are doing and help them find meaning in the work. Also, help them understand how their individual actions contribute to some goal that is meaningful. Then, managers need to actually set up conditions that support people being able to make progress in their work such as supporting intrinsic motivation.
Abhijit: Is being engaged with the task or the organization different from being happy?
Teresa: They are related but they are not the same thing. Engagement is being intently involved in the work itself. When people are strongly engaged in their work, they’re captivated by it in a way. They are in a state of “flow”. This can be an extreme form of deep engagement in the work. It doesn’t always feel happy. It can feel very effortful, very difficult like ‘deliberate practice’. You are so involved in what you are doing, you can lose track of time, you can lose track of the fact that you haven’t eaten in six hours. You’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing.
Now, most people at work don’t experience that degree of engagement. I don’t know if you could work eight hours a day, every day. You would probably collapse. But there are varying degrees of that. Ideally, people will be sufficiently engaged in their work and that they will be intrinsically motivated to do it. It doesn’t always feel light and happy but it usually feels deeply satisfying and that is related to feeling happy.