UT Researcher Says Creativity Also Demands Hard Work — And Rest

Oct 30, 2019

Should employers — or anyone — who want to fuel creativity offer incentives for lots of hard work or offer breaks from the job? A researcher at the University of Texas at Austin says, well, yes.

Most of us are probably familiar with the saying "you get what you pay for." But research is showing that the promise of rewards for work well done will not necessarily encourage the most creative output.

Dr. Steven Kachelmeier and two researchers from the University of Illinois set out to explore what happens to creativity when different levels of output are rewarded with different incentives.

Their study found that subjects who returned to a task after a break came up with more ideas and more creative ideas if they had originally been told their pay would be based on the quantity — not the quality — of ideas. In other words, study subjects who were told to come up with a lot of ideas, whether they were good or not, performed better than subjects who were told they would be judged on the creative quality of the ideas.

All of the subjects were given a rest break before they had to complete the study tasks.

So what is at play here?

Kachlemeier says research in the past has shown that time away from a task will improve creative performance. The addition of an incentive structure added another dimension to that work.

"What we're showing at the margin is that you need to have incentives to get the creative juices going in the first place,'" says Kachelmeier. "It's sort of a two-stage process. One: work hard. Two: then rest, and the rest lets things relax."

Listen to the KUT interview to hear more about how researchers study and measure creativity in the first place and the implications of these findings for the workplace.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Dr. Steve Kachelmeier: The simplest answer to the question can you incentivize creativity is ‘yes, but it's not easy to do.’ You've got to incentivize people to come up with a lot of ideas; wait; give them time to rest - and then they become more creative.

KUT: What are you measuring when you're measuring creativity?

Kachelmeier: We're thinking of creativity more in the sense of fresh, new, innovative ideas in a profession — and there's more and more of these, and less and less of the routine ones — where you're paid and your performance in your job is based on thinking and judgment and coming up with creative solutions to your client's problems rather than just routine tasks. Because let's face it, virtually every routine task out there is being automated or replaced by a machine or a computer. So what's left? In today's economy, it’s creative thinking and coming up with ideas. And that's a service economy where you pay people not just to do routine work, but to think. And so that's what we mean by ‘creative.’

KUT: How did you go about studying this?

Kachelmeier: We had — consistent with a lot of psychology research — student participants do a task where they create and designed what I will call rebus puzzles. One of the most common ones that everybody has seen is the word MAN, and then a line underneath it. And then the word ‘board’ below that. And the solution to that is ‘man overboard.’ We did not have these participants solve these things. We had them create them, design them. ‘Okay. Here's 11 examples. Now go for it. What can you do?’ And in a 20-minute task, we said here's different ways we're going to pay you. We tried paying people for the number of ideas they came up, no matter how creative they were. We tried paying people for how creative their ideas were. And just giving them fixed pay; ‘Here's $25. Thanks for coming. You don't need to do anything. We'd like you to do something but that's not tied to your performance.’ People are no more creative or no less creative under any of these incentive conditions initially. The kind of the germ of insight in the latest research that's getting some attention in the press is what happens when you bring people back later.

KUT: What do you think it is about that time interval that led to what you found — that led to more creative ideas?

Kachelmeier: Nobody knows exactly what's going on, but I would think I'd be safe in saying it's not necessarily conscious thinking. It's not that you're spending all that time working more on the task. It's not additional time. It's just that things germinate in the subconscious. How often have you had a brilliant idea walking out of the shower in the morning? You struggle on a difficult problem. You didn't come to closure. You didn't reach a solution. You get a good night's sleep. You take a shower. ‘Aha. Got it.’ So it's that spark of insight. People have shown that before. But what we're showing at the margin is that you need to have incentives to get the creative juices going in the first place. So it's sort of a two stage process: One: work hard. Two: then rest, and the rest lets things relax. Creativity happens in the subconscious. You get this inspiration, but inspiration isn't magic. You have to have the preparation to let that happen.

KUT: How widely applicable would you say these findings are as far as workplaces in business and outside an academic laboratory setting?   

Kachelmeier: One never knows exactly because there's only so much you can generalize from a laboratory experiment. But I do see companies — Google comes to mind as one where the Google employees work hard. They have even some stress. They're expected to perform, but they also are encouraged to meditate and rest and take some time and do other things as well. And that might seem contradictory at first blush. What do you want to do? Do you want him to work harder? You want him to rest? And the answer is both.

KUT: The amount of the rest didn't really impact things. It was just literally stopping stepping back and starting again.   

Kachelmeier: Yeah. But it's interesting that other researchers tried longer periods and that doesn't work. So simply saying, ‘okay, we'll give you another couple hours to do this,’ that just adds to the frustration. There is a point in frustration where you need to stop. Now you need to get to that point where it's frustrating, but then you do need to stop. It's not necessarily how long that break is. We were interested. We tried to push the envelope. So in the latest study we did, we just took participants on a 20-minute walk. We told them it was part of the research — just around the campus green space. We told them not to use their cellphones. We told them not to talk, but just to relax. Let's take a walk. Let's take a break. They came back, and the ones who were incentivized for quantity initially were more creative subsequently.

KUT: How did creativity find its way into accounting research?   

Kachelmeier: At the end of the day, at its root, accounting is measuring performance. And performance to me is not just ex post ‘how did you do’ type of task. It's also before the fact. Let me motivate you. But the reason accounting is interested in this is in some sense if I measure your performance and my goal is to make you as creative as possible, can I align those two things? If people are going to be rewarded and get compensation — for instance, just giving people more money for creativity doesn't work. And so it flies against the conventional wisdom that you get what you pay for. And the more interesting part of that for me is not just the postmortem. OK. How did you do? It's the before the fact. How could you do? And can I motivate you by telling you how your performance will be measured?

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