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Employees can be both creative and productive, if conditions are right

Datum:10 januari 2017
Auteur:Yan Shao
Employees can be both creative and productive, if conditions are right
Employees can be both creative and productive, if conditions are right

How many ideal employees do you have? Those who are very good at thinking creatively, and at the same time are very efficient in production and following routines. We want employees to explore new knowledge and opportunities (exploration), and at the same we expect them to refine existing skills and knowledge and deliver their work in a productive way (exploitation). This sounds like contradictory demands, but with an increasingly complex, dynamic business environment this ideal has become critical and organizations are searching for these combined competencies so that the organization can be both efficient as well as innovative. ‘Ambidexterity’ is the term used for this – the capability of being equally adept in different and often conflicting tasks.

Can we develop and promote employee ambidexterity? It is possible, but also easier said than done. It is challenging to achieve employee ambidexterity mainly because of the following three reasons (Kauppila and Tempelaar, 2016). First, the costs of skills development. Employees have limited time, knowledge and resources, which constrains their ability to develop sufficient competences in both explorative and exploitative activities. Second, the limitations of the mind. Explorative and explorative behaviors are driven by distinct, even contradictory mindsets. Switching between different mindsets poses heavy demand on employees’ cognitive resources, which decreases their willingness to be ambidextrous. Third, most organizations lack clear expectations and focused support for individuals’ ambidextrous behaviors, which hinders the development of employee ambidexterity.

So, what is needed to realize ambidexterity? The recent study by Kauppila and Tempelaar (2016) provides three interesting insights. By surveying 638 employees from 173 work groups across 34 organizations at two different time points, they found that employees with high learning orientation, which denotes the motivation to develop competence by learning or mastering a new task, is tightly associated with employee ambidextrous behavior. This is because learning-oriented individuals treat setback as useful feedback, which guides them to increase their effort level and try out different methods. The second finding is that managers who combine high performance expectations with sufficient managerial support enhance employee ambidexterity performance. The third finding is that the combination of both is best: employee ambidexterity is mostly likely to occur when learning-oriented employees are supported with managers who combine expectations and support.

What do the results imply for managerial practice? The taking-home message from this research is that managers should be aware of that individuals do vary in the extent to which they can demonstrate ambidextrous behaviors. Some are more prone to ambidextrous behavior than others. Thus, recruiting or identifying learning-oriented employees is a useful strategy to build an ambidexterity capability. At the same time managers need to take an initiating role to shape a supportive working environment with sufficient managerial support and combine that with high performance expectations. In this way managers not only promote ambidextrous behaviors in all employees, but also challenge learning-oriented employees to be even more ambidextrous.

Reference: Kauppila, O. P., & Tempelaar, M. P. (2016). The Social-Cognitive Underpinnings of Employees’ Ambidextrous Behaviour and the Supportive role of Group managers’ leadership. Journal of Management Studies, 53(6), 1019-1044.

Yan Shao ( is PhD candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen.  Her dissertation is about “The paradox of creativity”.


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