Better together?! – Creativity in a group project
This blog post was written as group assignment for the course Creativity and Innovation in Organizations (master track Organizational Psychology)
So there they sit: three different people with three different approaches, thrown together to write yet another group assignment. First is Julia, who is slightly stressed and highly prepared with a clipboard and to-do list. Then we have the bossy one who thinks she knows best, named Nancy. And last there is Peter, who is not really doing anything, even though he is pretty creative. The mission: to write something as creative as possible about creativity. The ideas: a whole board full. The time frame: only a few days left. Can it be done with these group members, who all have distinct personalities and styles of working? Or will it become a hot mess?
The slightly obsessive
The first teammate to be introduced is Julia. She likes it structured and hates to stand in front of a blank sheet, it stresses her out. That’s why, even before the first group meeting, she looked for established approaches, drafted project timelines and text versions without even hearing anyone’s opinion. She is what personality psychologists might classify as having a high Personal Need for Structure (PNS). What the rest of the group thought at their first meeting was clear: “If she doesn’t come down and just lets it happen, that’s it for the creative project”. And indeed, her exemplary to-do-list approach had not yet produced any brilliant ideas – but could her organised streak also contribute to the project? Or would she remain “the stressful one”?
Fortunately not! As the group came across an article by Rietzschel et al. (2007), who dealt exactly with this predicament between structured potential and expected creativity-brake, it made them realise that high PNS actually only becomes the feared “toxic” cocktail when combined with another personality ingredient: high Personal Fear of Invalidity (PFI). High PFI describes all “But what if?”-people, all doubters and waverers who wallow in inhibiting indecision because of worry about the consequences. The within-personality mixture of high PNS and PFI might actually wedge two forces into one another: preference for simplification and tendency towards anxious complexification. What the study found was that, at high levels of PFI, PNS was associated with less creativity, but at low PFI, PNS was actually positively related to creativity. The magic word here is: persistence! It is precisely this characteristic of high PNS people that can ultimately contribute to the generation of more ideas, and among them there might be good ones! High PNS people act like moles here: they don’t necessarily shine in the flexible creativity facet that lets them jump back and forth between categories while thinking, but they are good at drilling deeper into a category in a structured way (if their low PFI allows that).
So, what does this mean for the group’s project? The others could try to assure Julia that she can just work wildly and not worry about the consequences. They could emphasise that at the end everything will be reviewed and the first draft will not be put on the gold scale. Luckily, the others find flexible thinking a bit easier, so they could give Julia several categories of ideas and let her play “mole” in a selected one.
Among the category-creators there is also Nancy, overshadowing the rest with her ideas. She might be a burden or a blessing. Her dominant and egocentric nature shows a distinct profile of personality: she is a narcissist. People like Nancy are extreme self-aggrandizers and have an inflated view of themselves in terms of control, success and admiration (O’Boyle et al., 2012). She probably sees herself as more creative than her group members, which she is not (Goncalo et al., 2010). Nancy is hard to work with, because she is pretty unlikeable and not willing to compromise (Han et al., 2019; O’Boyle et al., 2012).
At first glance, it does not seem appealing to have Nancy in the group, but she has much to contribute. What often happens in group work is that people hold back in sharing their ideas, leading groups to underperform (Diehl & Stroebe, 1987, as cited in Goncalo et al., 2010). Nancy could break through that. Her grandiose ideas of herself help her to just get her ideas out there, without being scared of interrupting. This leads to the expression of more ideas. And more ideas help the moles of our group to find their category-hole to dig in deeper. Goncalo et al. (2010) have found that group creativity is optimal when two out of four group members are narcissistic. The competition among them would take creative ideas to the next level. So they might actually consider adding another narcissist! Nancy, as charming and enthusiastic as she can be, is skilled at selling her ideas to others (Goncalo et al., 2010). Narcissists like Nancy are not only useful for the generation of ideas, but also for the selling of them.
The ‘unproductive’ one
And then there is Peter, who is open to experience and therefore could be high in creativity (Baer & Oldham, 2006). However, he showed up to the first meeting without a clue what they were supposed to do. He told the group that he is into creative assignments, but felt like this was too early to start. A week after the first meeting Peter still had not done anything, so the rest of the group made it clear to him that there wasn’t infinite time. They told him that the group would not get a sufficient grade for the assignment if he continued like this. Nevertheless, he still did not produce any creative ideas.
That is when the group came across an article by Friedman and Förster (2001) which discussed the effects of being either prevention- or promotion-focused on creativity. Previously, Nancy and Julia had told Peter that they would not pass the assignment if he would not start to work. This made him prevention-oriented, in other words risk averse, vigilant and afraid of failure. In order to stimulate his creativity, he needed a promotion-oriented style. This meant that instead of wanting to avoid a bad grade, he had to want a good grade, or even more. Nancy and Julia reminded him that their assignment could even be about much more than a pass, that the best assignment would be given the chance to be published, and that it was he who spontaneously expressed at our very first meeting, “I want us to be those lucky ones who can be heard by multiple people and communicate something relevant to many!”
Besides changing his processing style, this support helped him in another way. According to Baer andOldham (2006), the feeling of time pressure alone is not enough to stimulate people that are just as open to new experiences as Peter to be creative – support is needed as well! With both time pressure and support, the chances of Peter being creative and therefore contributing to the group would most likely increase. When the rest of the group started communicating their expectations and giving support, specifically in a promotion-oriented way, Peter started to come up with one creative idea after the other.
So, it’s not only about group members’ personalities or working styles. Performing creatively depends on a lot of other internal and external factors. Everybody needs different things in order to perform creatively and reach their full potential. May it be the support for creativity or the shift towards a promotion-focus for Peter, a counter-playing narcissist for Nancy, or a predefined category to play mole in for Julia. Maybe it is precisely because of, and not in spite of, this colourful mix that the group can perform particularly creatively. Indeed, research has shown that having a group with different individual preferences and opinions can stimulate the motivation to engage in deliberate information searching and processing, which can indeed help creative performance (De Dreu et al., 2011). The most important thing is to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses and eventually to put everyone in their strength. So let’s just get started, because we indeed are better together!
Image credit: ‘Color Pencils’ by Steven S. Licensed with CC BY 2.0.
Baer, M., & Oldham, G. R. (2006). The curvilinear relation between experienced creative time pressure and creativity: Moderating effects of openness to experience and support for creativity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(4), 963-970. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.91.4.963
De Dreu, C. K. W., Nijstad, B. A., Bechtoldt, M. N., & Baas, M. (2011). Group creativity and innovation: A motivated information processing perspective. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5(1), 81-89. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017986
Goncalo, J. A., Flynn, F. J., & Kim, S. H. (2010). Are two narcissists better than one? The link between narcissism, perceived creativity, and creative performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(11), 1484-1495. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167210385109
Förster, J., Friedman, R. S., & Liberman, N. (2004). Temporal construal effects on abstract and concrete thinking: Consequences for insight and creative cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 177-189. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
Han, J. H., Liao, H., Kim, S., & Han, J. (2020). Narcissism and empowerment: how narcissism influences the trickle‐down effects of organizational empowerment climate on performance. Journal of Management Studies, 57(6), 1217-1245. https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12533
O’Boyle, E. H., Jr., Forsyth, D. R., Banks, G. C., & McDaniel, M. A. (2012). A meta-analysis of the Dark Triad and work behavior: A social exchange perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(3), 557-579. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025679
Rietzschel, E. F., De Dreu, C. K., & Nijstad, B. A. (2007). Personal need for structure and creative performance: The moderating influence of fear of invalidity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(6), 855-866. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0146167207301017