The Top 6 Predictors of Creative Performance in the Workplace

About 12 months ago, we set out to see if it was possible to do what was previously thought to

be impossible – to accurately predicting whether a person would be an effective creative

thinker at work. To our knowledge, there was not a single, scientifically validated process to

do this. We found that in the majority of cases, most companies were not using any method for

assessing creativity, despite claiming it to be a critical competency for staff to possess.

There were a couple of exceptions. In “creative industries,” such as advertising and design,

recruiters would typically look at a job applicant’s portfolio of past work to see how

creative they were. Of course, we all know people’s tendencies to stretch the truth. I used to

work at the advertising agency that came up with the idea for Earth Hour. And despite the fact

that only one person came up with the idea, I heard about many people from the agency claiming

that they were the one who gave birth to this idea and had put it in their portfolio.

In other industries, creative thinking is sometimes assessed by giving people a difficult

problem to solve and observing how they answer the problem. For example, Microsoft famously

asks job applicants how they would move Mount Fuji, and uses their answers as a test as to how

creative they are. However, this process has never been scientifically validated and is only

testing a small component of workplace creativity.

So we set ourselves the challenge of measuring the unmeasurable. We tested over 1,300 people,

from industries as diverse as advertising, engineering and insurance. We discovered that yes,

we could indeed predict a person’s ability to think creatively and work, and could do so

extremely accurately. It was all a matter of identifying the right variables to measure.

There are several components to creative thinking that we found that our test could predict.

These included a person’s ability to:

Generate new and effective solutions.

Collaborate well with others.

Sell and communicate ideas to others.

Think creatively under stressful situations.

Our test incorporated over 25 “predictors” – things that we knew were predictive of creative

performance as shown by leading researchers in the field. Here are some of the variables that

came out as the top predictors of creative performance in the workplace that you can use to

help your own predictive powers.

1. Openness to experience

There are hundreds of different personality traits, but we found that there was one trait in

particular that was most predictive of creative performance. This trait, called ‘Openness to

Experience’ is all about our inclination to seek out and appreciate new experiences. People

who score high on this trait tend to enjoy having a lot of variety in their life, have a high

level of curiosity, and use their imagination a lot. As a result, they perform significantly

more creatively at work.

If you want to try to foster this trait in yourself or in others, start by becoming

consciously aware of routines that you have in your life – it might be reading the same types

of magazines, gravitating towards the same types of movies or restaurants – and actively

encourage yourself to try something different. Being open to experiencing new activities, and

following through on this, will help improve your openness to experience and thus

significantly boost your creative performance.

2. Creative self-efficacy

Creative self-efficacy relates to a person’s confidence in their ability to think creatively.

A person’s creative confidence is important because it directly influences the motivation and

ability of a person to get stuck into creative problem-solving tasks. People who are high on

this dimension have a strong belief in their ability to generate creative ideas, will immerse

themselves in tasks that require creativity, and will seek to get the best ideas out of

themselves. Simply having this self belief has been shown to significantly increase a person’s

actual ability to think creatively.

If you currently do not see yourself as being an effective creative thinker, it is important

to recognise that this is merely a negative frame of mind that can be changed using positive

reinforcement. Research has consistently shown that creativity is malleable and our creative

potential can be manipulated using a variety of strategies. So next time you do something

creative, like solving a problem or participating in a brainstorm, make sure you acknowledge

this creativity, give yourself a pat on the back and nurture your creative confidence. By

reinforcing your creative triumphs, no matter how small, you will increase your awareness and

confidence of your creative potential.

3. Resilience

Resilience is all about a person’s psychological ability to deal with stressful situations.

People who are high in resilience bounce back easily from disappointments and failures, and

can remain optimistic when things are not going their way. We found that people who showed

high levels of resilience were significantly more creative at work. This is because creativity

often involves experiencing failure, such as having ideas rejected and having implemented

ideas perform poorly. Being able to bounce back from rejections is critical to maintaining

creativity and enthusiasm.

Starting to see failure as going hand in hand with creativity can help with setting more

realistic expectations which will help boost resilience. In addition, reminding yourself that

rejections and failures are not personal should also help build up a level of resilience.

4. Confidence in intuition

Intuition is an effortless, quick, and automatic form of thinking (our “gut feel”) that we

rely on frequently to guide our actions. This is in contrast to analytical thinking which is

deliberate, unhurried and detail-oriented. People who have a lot of confidence in their

intuitive side tend to prefer this way of thinking over more analytical thinking and their

confidence in the accuracy of these intuitive decisions. Having this confidence in one’s

intuition can help immensely with creativity, as creative thought often involves tapping into

intuitive, “gut” thinking.

Confidence in intuition can be developed by gradually using and testing your intuitive

judgments in low risk circumstances, then using any successful intuition-based decisions as

encouragement for more important tasks. The next time you have an opportunity to make a low-

risk decision using your “gut feel” (when trying to answer a question on a game show or when

you’re asked a question you’re not too sure of, for example), ensure you make the decision

instantly then check to confirm the correct answer. More often than not, you will find that

your instinctive answers are correct. The next step is to start deploying these automatic

judgments at work when trying to solve problems or when brainstorming, and to consciously

acknowledge the benefits of your instinctive judgments when they pay off. This gradual

approach will ease you into a pattern of trusting your intuition and will help to develop your

creative aptitude.

5. Tolerance of ambiguity

Tolerance of Ambiguity relates to how people react to problem solving tasks where the

information provided is vague, incomplete or inconsistent, and where the solution and path to

get to the solution are not immediately clear. People who are very tolerant of ambiguities are

not bothered by problems that are perceived as open-ended or ambiguous as they tend to be

highly flexible and dynamic, and they enjoy the autonomy and creativity ill-defined tasks

require. Being open to ambiguity and feeling comfortable with these types of problems is key

to creative performance, as a large part of creative thinking involves being able to sit

comfortably with problems that have no obvious solution.

Changing the way you perceive unclear objectives is one way of becoming more comfortable with

ambiguity. Initially, you must challenge your automatic tendency to view vague instructions

negatively; instead, try to be neutral and open to ambiguities. The next step is to realise

that the more ambiguous your directives, the more scope you have to impose your personal touch

and talent on the brief. That is, ambiguous briefs give you much more opportunity to work

outside organisational constraints and norms, and to do things the way you think they should

be done. If you consistently approach ambiguous directives in this way – openly, positively

and confidently – your habit of perceiving ambiguity negatively will be replaced by a tendency

to view ambiguity as an opportunity for you to shine.

6. Cross application of experiences

Cross-application of experiences occurs when a person draws on experiences from seemingly

unrelated parts of their life to solve problems at work. People who demonstrate this behaviour

frequently apply knowledge and concepts from outside of the work environment to solve work-

related problems.

The obvious solution to improve upon this area is to start deliberately applying knowledge and

experiences from outside of work to tasks requiring creative problem solving at work. A common

and effective strategy is to use analogy, that is, try to identify similarities in the problem

you are working on and a problem you’ve solved previously outside of work. Once similarities

have been extracted try to see if your previous solutions would also work in the problem you

are attempting to solve. You can also draw analogies using your knowledge of seemingly

irrelevant topics, such as history, politics or popular culture. The more similarities you can

identify between projects at work and your knowledge and experiences, the better you will

understand the problem you are faced with and the more likely you are to be able to solve it.

So what now?

The six points outlined above are some of the main findings to come out of our research, which

should hopefully give you and your team some direction for enhancing your own creativity.

There were also several other variables that were linked to creative performance in the

workplace, however, the above variables were some of the main ones.

You might also start to think about how you could incorporate these things into your

recruitment process when you are looking for new staff who will be great creative thinkers, or

alternatively, seek out a formal way of measuring these traits as they can be tricky to

assess.

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