The Dynamics of Maintaining a Reputation of Creativity

Creativity Illustration

The Dynamics of Maintaining a Reputation of Creativity

In the modern economy, creativity is in high demand as a key skill for delivering innovative ideas and thriving as a worker.

But being labeled a workplace’s “creative” can have downsides—which is the subject of a recent article by Joel Carnevale, assistant professor of management; Lei Huang, associate professor of management in the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business at Auburn University; Lynne C. Vincent, assistant professor of management; Steven Farmer, professor and W. Frank Barton Distinguished Chair in Business at Wichita State University; and Lin Wang, professor of management at National Sun Yat-sen University.

The co-authors draw on three field and experimental studies and integrate literature on impression management and creativity to explore the little-studied interpersonal dynamics and anxieties that can surround maintaining a reputation for being creative.

At work, seeking out and sharing diverse perspectives and asking for needed help typically promote creativity, which involves combining information and concepts in new and useful ways. Recognition for novel ideas, however, may also bring other psychological forces into play. “Creative employees can become overly concerned about maintaining their reputation as creative,” Carnevale says.

As a result, they may avoid asking for help on creative work, not wanting to expose any weakness or deficiency in their creativity or give the impression that it is waning—a potentially maladaptive behavior that could negatively affect their ability to continue innovating. On the other hand, these creatives may go out of their way to assist others, implying their own superior skills and allowing them to flex their creative prowess without looking as if they are showing off. Over time, Carnevale explains, “such creative stars may start to fade while propelling those in their orbit up the creative hierarchy.”

To avoid losing out on much innovative potential, the researchers suggest, managers should regularly validate their employees’ creative achievements and educate them on the benefits of asking for help. “Consistent validation may make creatives feel psychologically safe to take risks, such as by being honest about when they need help from others on their creative work,” Carnevale says. “And research actually shows that help-givers tend to look favorably on help-seekers, viewing them as more competent and wiser than those who refuse to ask for help.”

Carnevale, J.B., Huang, L., Vincent, L.C., Farmer, S., & Wang, L., Better to give than to receive (or seek) help? The interpersonal dynamics of maintaining a reputation for creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 167, 144-156. 2021