ITHACA, N.Y. — People often say that repetition is the mother of learning, but researchers from Cornell University suggest that repetition can also be quite helpful when it comes to creativity. Their study finds that lower-level employees tend to become more creative when they have time to “warm up” to a task or engage in that creative activity more than once.
The research team explains that, in the workplace, employees in positions of power (managers, bosses, and CEOs) usually find it easier to tap into their creative side thanks to a lack of restrictions or fear of negative judgments and rejection.
“This is important because when people with more power are able to express their creative ideas more than those with less power, it leads to a rich-get-richer dynamic that reinforces or exacerbates these power differentials,” says study co-author Brian Lucas, assistant professor in the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, in a university release.
“Understanding ways to boost the creativity of lower power workers can help them navigate this low-power disadvantage, generate more creative ideas and promote a more equitable workplace,” the researcher continues.
Prof. Lucas and the rest of the team discovered that while it is true low-power individuals tend to be less creative than high-power individuals upon starting a creative endeavor, they can eventually catch up and reach the same levels of creativity as high-powered individuals. Study authors explain this is because engaging in creative ventures sparks feelings of autonomy and liberation, eventually helping lower-level employees overcome their low-power disadvantage.
Prof. Lucas and two other researchers, Sahoon Kim and Jack Goncalo, both from the University of Illinois, conducted three experiments to reach this conclusion.
During the first experiment, the team divided the creative idea generation session into two rounds featuring a one-minute “warm up” followed by a second round in which participants could take as long as they wanted. They randomly assigned participants to either a high-power condition or a low-power condition, and induced feelings of power using a “role manipulation” exercise in which participants either had a leadership role and control over resources (high power) or an employee role with no control over resources at all (low power). Ultimately, this experiment found high-power individuals were more creative than low power individuals in the warm-up round. However, creativity levels were equal across both groups by the second round.
For the second experiment, researchers changed up the creative task and increased the number of rounds from two sessions to five. The volunteers were free to take long as they wanted to complete the task.
Finally, the third experiment entailed the use of two different creative tasks across two rounds, both of which lasting just one minute. In line with the findings of the first experiment, the second and third experiments also found that high-power individuals were more creative than low-power individuals during the first round – but low power individuals “caught up” to the creativity of the high-power individuals during following rounds. The third experiment in particular found that a different creativity task can even warm-up low-power people for an entirely unrelated creativity task.
“The experience of being creative can, in and of itself, have positive psychological consequences,” Prof. Lucas says.
“Given the high value of creative ideas for organizations and for the careers of the employees that champion them, it is important to cultivate strategies that empower all employees to tap their creative potential,” he concludes. “The low power warm-up effect suggests a simple intervention that does just this and overcomes power differentials in the workplace: when pursuing creative work, let employees warm up first.”
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.