A Hands-off Approach To Creativity
How does leadership — and leadership style — affect the origin of creativity in work environments? New Smith School research takes a closer look.
Feb 12, 2018

A Hands-off Approach To Creativity

Feb 12, 2018
As Featured In 
Journal of Organizational Behavior

How Leadership Can Affect The Origin Of Creativity

Employee creativity has long been touted as essential for organizational survival and effectiveness, and leaders often strategize about how to encourage more creative outcomes. But for team leaders in particular, this can present a special challenge.

Since ideas are ultimately offered up by individuals, it’s useful for leaders to develop individuals’ knowledge and skills needed for creativity. The problem? Related research suggests that team creativity is much more than the sum of its individual parts — it requires the exchange of knowledge among team members.

That’s where transformational leadership, or TFL, comes into play. Effective transformational leaders have different emphases when managing individuals versus teams: Some behaviors are more meaningfully targeted at individuals (individual-focused TFL) and other behaviors are more suited for the team (team-focused TFL), leading one to posit that TFL intended for both groups — aka dual-focused TFL — might be the golden ticket.

With a group of co-researchers, Kathryn Bartol, Robert H. Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation and chair of the management and organization department at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, developed and tested a multilevel model that connects dual-focused TFL and creativity. They examined how dual-focused TFL may influence individual and team creativity via separate channels.

Using survey data from individuals, team leaders and direct supervisors in high-technology firms, the researchers discovered that individual-focused TFL had a positive indirect effect on individual creativity through individual skill development. On the flip side, team-focused TFL affected team creativity partially through its influence on team knowledge sharing.

Similar research has indicated that influential leaders — with their hierarchical power and central position in workflows — are usually heavily involved in the problem solving process and in directing their followers’ contributions to creative idea generation. However, Bartol and her co-authors reveal alternative routes: They highlight the possibility that leaders can influence via a development role instead of as a direct contributor.

“That is, team leaders can encourage and enable team members to proactively enact upon their own capabilities and upon pooled team knowledge to produce creative ideas,” the researchers say.

What’s more, the indirect effect of individual-focused TFL on creativity found in this study could mean that typical leader behaviors — like providing customized coaching and setting high expectations — may not necessarily lead directly to employee creativity.

“Rather, the leader can provide opportunities for individual team members to develop the task-related knowledge and capabilities needed for creativity,” according to the researchers, “which then prepare and enable them to step up to the creativity work requirements and to more effectively produce creative outcomes.”

The study also demonstrates a possible benefit of team-focused TFL: Team members may more readily recognize the significance of sharing their knowledge and of providing opportunities for them to do so.

Read more: Enhancing employee creativity via individual skill development and team knowledge sharing: Influences of dual-focused transformational leadership is featured in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

About the Author(s)

Kathryn M. Bartol

Dr. Kathryn M. Bartol is the Robert H. Smith Professor of Leadership and Innovation and Chair of the Management and Organization Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park. She is the co-director of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change (CLIC). She holds an Executive Coach Certification from the Columbia University Coaching Certification Program.

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