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Work and occupational

Teams are more creative when their leader is confident in her or his own creativity

Creative self-efficacy is likely not the only trait that disposes leaders to encourage creativity, but it is one of the few so far explicitly identified by research.

21 January 2016

By Alex Fradera

If you’re wondering who to appoint to run a team with creative goals, you might favour a non-creative, reasoning that it’s down to the team members to generate creativity, with the person at the top acting more as driver and dogged coordinator. However, new research in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes suggests that teams produce more creative outcomes when their managers have greater confidence in their own creativity.

Lei Huang of Auburn University and his collaborators surveyed 106 team leaders in a large tech company based in the US, canvassing their creative self-efficacy (CSE): their belief in their own ability to complete creative goals, as measured through survey items like “I have confidence in my ability to solve problems creatively.”

The researchers also surveyed team members, 544 in all, who had spent an average of four years in the company. They said they were more willing to focus on creative activities – “I spend considerable time sifting through information that helps to generate new ideas” – when they were led by an individual who had scored higher in CSE; they also rated high CSE leaders as being more encouraging of creativity. These effects were amplified when team members felt they had better relationships with their manager. Did team members with creatively confident leaders actually deliver more creative work? Yes, at least according to the team leaders: those who scored higher on CSE were more likely to report that their teams were a “good source of creative ideas”.

To sum up, modelling of the data showed that creatively confident leaders had teams more invested in creative activities, that saw the leadership as encouraging creativity (all the more when relationships were strong), and that produced more creative work overall. Now, you could imagine the opposite to be the case: that creative leaders pursue their own creative ideas to the cost of supporting their followers, and are reluctant to view what their followers produce as creative, due to their own higher bar for what counts as such. No doubt such cases exist. But this study suggests that in normal functioning leadership contexts, managers recognise that the route for delivering the kind of work they care about is through their followers, so if they want creative results, they have to facilitate it, not produce it personally. In addition, people higher in CSE are known to be less conformist and receptive to ideas; they get creative behaviours.

One weakness of this study is that the measure of team creative performance was subjective, and moreover, rated by the leaders themselves. It could be that creative-minded leaders are more ready to see the creativity in team members. So Huang’s team recommend future work with objective ratings or via ratings by other coworkers.

Creative self-efficacy is likely not the only trait that disposes leaders to encourage creativity, but it is one of the few so far explicitly identified by research. And the good news is self-efficacy can be developed. So organisations may want to look at how to foster their leaders’ confidence in their own creative skills: this will boost their motivation to generate new approaches, and help them recognise that the risks and occasional failures along the way are worthwhile.

Further reading

Huang, L., Krasikova, D., & Liu, D. (2016). I can do it, so can you: The role of leader creative self-efficacy in facilitating follower creativity Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 132, 49-62 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2015.12.002