What Employees Really Need to Deliver Creativity – Kogod Now
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Kogod Now / Faculty Research  / What Employees Really Need to Deliver Creativity
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What Employees Really Need to Deliver Creativity

When a global consulting firm surveyed managers and employees about trust in their relationship, it discovered a telling imbalance in their perceptions.

The Boston-based Forum Corporation discovered that among managers, 87 percent said they often or always apologized for their mistakes. Only 19 percent of employees said the same about their bosses. The groups even had disparate perceptions of whether trust is important: 91 percent of employees said yes, although less than half of managers—48 percent—thought so. The study, released in 2013, surveyed 948 employees in several countries.

Associate Professor Xiaomeng Zhang believes managers skimp on trust-building at their peril. Those who fail to appreciate its importance risk harm to their employee relationships and can even undermine employees’ creative output.

“I think most managers believe it’s important to build trust with their subordinates,” says Zhang, who completed the study with Jing Zhou of Rice University. “But the problem is they do not do anything—or enough—to build the trust.”


Trust is just one piece of the puzzle. Zhang and Zhou also examined a specific type of employee: one with high “uncertainty avoidance.” Such employees like to know what’s expected of them—the rules and regulations of bosses and the company.

The researchers also wanted to examine empowering leaders—managers who express care for their employees and confidence in their abilities, involve them in decision making, and eliminate bureaucratic constraints.

Zhang and Zhou sought to tease apart how these dynamics affect a single, important outcome: employee creativity. Creativity is a close cousin to innovation, and companies increasingly recognize both are necessary to stay on top in a competitive, evolving marketplace.

Zhang argues that employees need trust in their managers to be at their most creative. Creativity is tough, she asserts. It requires identifying a problem, conducting research, producing and evaluating ideas—all before the “a-ha!” moment materializes.

“Each of these activities requires tons of effort and time,” Zhang says. “Engaging in them can only increase the chances of proposing creative ideas; it cannot guarantee anything.”

Therefore, she says, trusting in a manager is critical for employees to be willing to engage in these activities. In other words, employees need assurance that even if they fail to produce a gem, they won’t be in the coal mines. Lacking this assurance, employees don’t have the confidence and freedom they need for creativity to flourish.


Yet what it takes to be creative might surprise you. Zhang points out that many people associate creativity with brainstorming—an “anything-goes” technique to generate as many ideas as possible. But in business, she notes, companies need ideas that actually work—ideas that are practical, afford- able, and in line with strategic direction.

People tend to assume employees with low uncertainty avoidance are the most creative. They are less concerned with the rules, thus—in theory— freer to dream up innovations. But Zhang believes employees with high uncertainty avoidance may actually produce the most fruitful ideas.

“To be creative—to effectively think outside the box—one must first be able to think inside the box, which means one must remain keenly aware of rules, guidelines, and constraints,” the authors write. Individuals with high uncertainty avoidance often have the best understanding of “the rules” because that helps them deal with uncertainty.

When it comes to generating ideas, then, these employees must be able to generate ideas that aren’t only new, but also feasible to execute and ultimately deliver return on investment (ROI).


Zhang and Zhou proposed that when uncertainty avoidance and trust are both high, empowering leaders will give the strongest boost to employee creativity. They also proposed that creative self-efficacy—employees’ confidence in their ability to provide positive, creative contributions—serves as a mediating factor in this relationship. They conducted two studies to test their theory.

The first study surveyed 330 engineers and 113 supervisors at a Chinese company that specialized in design and manufacture of energy-saving light bulbs. They measured employees’ assessments of the five elements in the researchers’ model:

  • • empowering leadership,
  • • uncertainty avoidance,
  • • trust in supervisor,
  • • creative self-efficacy, and
  • • creativity.

The second study focused on automated production line workers at a Chinese metals manufacturer. This time, researchers used a different questionnaire to analyze 199 responses from employees and supervisors.
Notably, both studies confirmed the authors’ hypotheses: When employees trust their supervisors, empowering leaders can boost creativity for employees with high uncertainty avoidance.

Zhang says they focused on China in part because many of its companies emphasize leadership and creativity. The model invites testing elsewhere to see if it yields similar results. It bodes well, however, that Zhang and Zhou found positive results in separate studies using different samples in different industries.

To Zhang, the importance of trust is the most interesting part of the story.

“Without trust, displaying empowering leadership alone does not make a difference [and is] sometimes even detrimental,” she says. “This is very interesting, and I think the practitioners should seriously think about this.”

She points to a noteworthy phenomenon that emerged from the research: Many companies spend a lot of money training managers in the “right” behavior but they fail to follow through to ensure managers consistently model that behavior.

“If you send the message to the employees that ‘I am going to empower you,’ you should seriously mean that,” Zhang cautions. “Otherwise, it might hurt the relationship and the performance. In addition, building trust is a long-term process. Believing in its value is not enough; managers should take the actions to do it, and do it consistently.” KN mark

“Empowering Leadership, Uncertainty Avoidance, Trust, and Employee Creativity: Interaction Effects and a Mediating Mechanism,” Xiaomeng Zhang and Jing Zhou, was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2014.

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