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Work pressure sparks creativity, if conditions are right

Datum:06 november 2018
Auteur:Yan Shao
Work pressure sparks creativity, if conditions are right
Work pressure sparks creativity, if conditions are right

Workload pressure has been long regarded as a devil for killing creativity of employees. Many advices have thus been given on how to minimize workload pressure in order to maximize employee creativity. However, insights from our recent research suggest that workload pressure is not necessarily a threat to creativity, but can be an opportunity for learning and creativity, if conditions are right.

Employees in contemporary organizations are increasingly experiencing high workload pressure,  the feeling of “having too much to do while having too little time”. This “busy-ness” tends to evoke the feelings of tensions between competing work goals. For example, when workload pressure is high, people are likely to feel the incompatibility between finishing fast and delivering high quality results, between using existing solutions and trying out new alternatives, and between being structured and being flexible. To release these tensions, people often adopt an “either-or” approach, pursuing one goal at the expense of the other. This defensive reaction often results in uncreative work outcomes (e.g. Smith & Lewis, 2011; Miron-Spektor, Ingram, Keller, Smith, & Lewis, 2018).

However, this “either-or” approach to tensions is not necessarily the only, nor the best option, if learning and creativity are desirable processes in the work. Tension rising from workload pressure increases complexity of work, which can actually provide employees the opportunity to learn, and challenges employees to create new solutions to effectively deal with the escalated “both-and” work demand.

Together with Bernard Nijstad and Susanne Täuber at the University of Groningen, we are studying the conditions that help employees thrive through the tensions resulting from high workload pressure. We found that leaders who embrace a “both-and” approach to competing work demands (paradoxes) play an important role for their employees. If a leader demonstrates to employees that embracing competing goals is possible and encouraged, employees are likely to learn from the leader, using a both-and approach themselves to proactively pursue competing work goals under high workload pressure situations. As a result, they are more likely to demonstrate the ability to creatively solve problems at work.

Importantly, however, we found that leaders dealing with these paradoxes are only a role model for those who have the cognitive capability to accept and integrate contradicting information. Because this cognitive complexity capability enables employees to understand, and accept leaders’ paradoxical behavior, thus learning from the leaders effectively.

To conclude, workload pressure is not always an inhibitor of employee creativity. What is important is how employees approach workload pressure and its associated tensions. A useful step is for leaders to play an active role, showing their employees a “both-and” approach to accept and embrace tensions. However, it important to note that this approach is only effective for employee who have the cognitive capability to embrace the “both-and” behavior.

Related literature:

Miron-Spektor, E., Ingram, A., Keller, J., Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. (2018). Microfoundations of organizational paradox: The problem is how we think about the problem. Academy of Management Journal, 61(1), 26-45.

Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. (2011). Toward a theory of paradox: A dynamic equilibrium model of organizing. Academy of management Review, 36(2), 381-403.

Yan Shao ( is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen. Her research focuses on understanding tensions and paradoxes related to creativity/innovation and factors/processes that influence the management of such tensions.