Do Group Norms Kill Creativity?


I subscribe to PsyBlog, which posts stories about interesting research being done in psychology. So far I have enjoyed every story they have posted and many have made me think. For example, earlier this week they posted a story stating that group norms developed/nurtured in the workplace stifle creativity. You can read the full article here.

Essentially their argument boiled down to the "ares" and "oughts" of organizational dynamics which create energy around people conforming, and conformation is arguably the opposite of creativity. That much makes sense to me logically. Though I can argue back about exceptions and if/then's, essentially I agree that if everyone is acting the same way, behaving the same way and thinking the same way, there will not be as much outside the box, left of center, creative leaps taking place.

But the one essential area that I think was lacking in this article was an acknowledgment or consideration of those of us who are creative thinkers by nature. For example, if I take myself as an example, I can honestly say that I conform on some levels. I seek out workplaces that have similar values as mine and nestle myself in as happy as a clam if they are a good fit. But I also have quite the rebellious, different-minded streak. At my core I want to be different, I want to be my own person. I want to think for myself. And I value my ability to think creatively and get outside the box.

So I would appear to be a contradiction, right? On the one hand seeking out similarly-minded people while making efforts to maintain my individuality. Quite the paradox.

But where I keep circling back to is that the best places I have worked have been ones that made me feel comfortable and confident as part of the team but also gave me enough room to be innovative and think creatively and ask a lot of "why" questions. I think it takes more courage from upper level administration to allow and FOSTER that kind of freedom than to react defensively and force everyone into the same narrow widget-making box.

So, what does that mean? My gut says that group norms themselves are not the problem, it is the KIND of group norms being fostered. And perhaps more importantly, there is a lot of individual-level psychology at play that needs to be considered. Does everyone like the kind of free-thinking creative process that I do? Absolutely not. I know lots of people who would hate working in that environment. So perhaps instead of painting a macro brush across all workplaces and all workers, we should try to figure out what the individuals want/need and find jobs/positions/roles/environments that will allow people to be confident and comfortable at the micro level.

Is that always possible? No. Is that rather idealistic in some ways? Yes. But I have worked in organizations that take this approach very seriously and successfully and I have worked in widget-box organizations. Give me the free thinkers any day. If I've learned nothing else during my four decades on this planet it's that the surest way to make me go crazy or to trigger a very negative rebellious streak in me is to try and pin me down and force me to conform.

So what does all this have to do with group norms and creativity? I want to advocate for organizations to put energy into creating group norms that FOSTER creativity rather than stifle it as well as manage to get things done and successfully produce whatever they are supposed to be producing. Identify the people who float around in the clouds and have the lightning strikes of inspiration. And identify the people who are do-ers and make things happen. And identify the people who can manage personalities successfully. And identify the people who can spot the potential problems. And identify the people who can sustain a project over time. They are all important and necessary. But if innovation, inspiration, and creativity are part of the mission, vision, and values of an organization, you've got to create group norms that make it happen.

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10 thoughts on “Do Group Norms Kill Creativity?

  1. This was supposedly one of the reasons why the software PeopleSoft was designed, to be able to deignate people as resources and track that sort of information on each person, so you know who your go to people are.

  2. I don't think normal exists. It's just not possible. Everyone is different, so why try to lump them into the same category? I mean, I know there are certain characteristics that people share but they still have their own quirks within that personality

  3. Thanks for the link to PsyBlog – lots to read there! I think even if we work in a "creative" workplace, we unconsciously find ourselves conforming to that workplace's idea of "creativity" and self-censoring without realizing it. Thinking outside the box has very different definitions in a government communications office as opposed to a left-wing publishing house (I've worked in both). Both have creative people, both encourage new ideas, but both have widely varied views as to what ideas should be encouraged. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

  4. Interesting… We used PeopleSoft at my old school. It is super smart at the university-wide level – could do some phenomenal inter-departmental coordination and tracking. On a really gigantic scale -Admissions, Financial Aid, Registration, Payroll…. I never thought about using it in a more human resources type role, tracking employees' talents and abilities… Good food for thought.

  5. Yeah. I've working in some departments that value creativity – web & graphic design – but have heard myself being the box at times. We had to stay within certain boundaries – the spectrum of the school colors, certain look & feel type requirements, branding, etc. So we could be as creative as we wanted as long as we followed the rules – lol… Catch-22.

  6. No they are not faking the need for creativity, they are just made uncomfortable by it. They know they need it to develop new products and stay ahead of the market. Creativity deveates from the norm, which is conformance (or the average). To be creative you need to think outside the box and that is uncharted territory (and a threat) for many people. The larger the organization, the more the drive for conformatity (to control the organization) while the need for creativity is driven by a need to change and excel. This is a dicotomy that makes it hard to achieve sucess.

  7. Wow Stevie! Impressive and intelligent thought processes going on here. Sounds good and, like you said, you would have to be super woman to pull all that off. But it is not impossible!Just to offer my few cents on it. The first thing that popped into my head is that it is like raising a child. There needs to be a balance of firm boundaries and a nurturing of the child's own power of independence. I think this is where, as you also said, the courage part comes in for the upper level management. Because, from the viewpoint of many bosses' minds, to foster your employees' independent power of creativity means to be out-shined and risk losing your job.And this is probably the heart of the matter. Most upper level management would rather suppress their employees' performance to save their own status within the organization. This is at the heart of many problems in the whole world today. And is a fundamental conflict at the heart of the human experience.Are you going to knock others down to stay at the top? Or are you going to empower those around you even at the risk of the student becoming more powerful than the master?

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