Rewarding Creativity Kills Creativity


It’s now twenty years since the launch of Pac-Man, and the inspiration for that early video game is a stereotypical story of creative genius. Toru Iwatani, an employee at Japanese game company Namco, wanted to create a new kind of video game. He wanted to exclude the violence of Space Invaders, bring women into what was then the male-dominated world of video arcades, and incorporate cute characters and simple gameplay. He also figured that women liked eating so something food-oriented might work.

It was when he took a slice of pizza that the thought struck him. The rest of the pizza, he realized, looked like an open mouth. All that was left was to give the anime-style ghosts their personalities and a pac-pac sound to replicate the sound of eating, a kind of Japanese nom-nom, and he had a game.

It’s how creative ideas are supposed to happen. A single, talented individual has an epiphany and transforms the spark of an idea into a product that everyone loves.

In practice, we know now that creativity is more complex than that. Creativity is less about individual genius and more about the environment in which that creativity takes place.

Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, has written in Berkeley’s The Greater Good about a number of studies that she and her colleagues conducted into the conditions that are likely to encourage—or discourage—creativity. What she found is both complex and surprising.

Big Prizes Squash New Ideas

In one study, Amabile organized two art parties for children that ended with the creation of paper collages. At one party, children were told that their collages would be entered into a raffle and the three winners would receive toy prizes. Children at the other party were told that a panel of adults would select the best three collages and award prizes to the winners.

Art students judged the creativity of all the entries, and Amabile found that the children who believed that the winners would be selected at random produced the most creative collages.

That sounds counterintuitive. The children who expected their work would be judged knew that they would be rewarded for their creativity, and yet their creativity declined. It was the children who would receive a random prize, regardless of how creative their work was, who produced the most creative collages.

That led Amabile to distinguish between the effects of extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators in creative work. Extrinsic motivators such as competitions, prizes, and rewards can reduce creativity, she argued, while intrinsic motivators—creating for the joy of creating—help to inspire it. An additional study seemed to support Amabile’s conclusions. In this experiment, Amabile asked creative writers to write a poem. One group of writers first rated their intrinsic reasons for writing, such as the pleasure of playing with words. Another group first rated their extrinsic reasons for writing, such as their desire for public acclaim. A third group acted as a control by reading a short story before they wrote their poem.

This time, Amabile found that even thinking about extrinsic motivators for creativity reduced the creativity of the output. The writers who had thought about the external rewards they wanted for their work produced a less creative poem.

That’s a problem for the creative industry, which is based on competition. Whether you’re designing a logo, pitching for an architecture job, or trying to land an advertising contract, there are rewards for your creative efforts. The more creative you can be, the better the chance that you’ll win a lucrative gig. And you have to compete to get it.

According to Amabile’s study though, entering the competition itself will reduce your creativity, and while everyone will be in the same boat, you still want to be preparing your best possible work.

Nor is it just competition for a reward that can kill your creativity. Amabile also lists knowing that your work will be judged; knowing that you’re being watched; being told how to create your work; and competing with your peers as well as your rivals as factors that can all reduce the innovativeness of your product.

A Little Competition Can Be a Good Thing

The effect of competition on creativity might be a little more complex than those studies suggest, however. Daniel P. Gross, an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, looked at what happened to creativity during a logo design competition. In Gross’s competition, which offered a winner-takes-all prize, designers could choose how many submissions they wanted to enter into the contest and how creative they wanted to be in each submission. They could choose to tweak their first design or enter something radically different.

Gross was then able to use software to track how the designer’s choice of creative effort changed in response to feedback and to changes in the level of competition the designers faced.

What Gross found was that when a designer saw that they had achieved a top rating and had no close competitor, their next submission was almost a replica of the first. They were less creative. When they had other top-rated competition, however, their next design would be radically different. They were much more creative. And when competition became particularly intense, they would drop out of the creative contest altogether.

“In this context,” Gross writes, “the model suggests that increasing competition will make the risky, original route more attractive than tweaking, up to a point. When competition becomes too severe, the returns to effort of either type become smaller, and agents will stop submitting designs altogether.”

That finding complicates the effect of competition on creative work, and has real-life consequences for the creative industry. “Although intrinsic motivation can be valuable,” says Gross, “this paper shows that winner-takes-all competition can motivate creativity, if properly managed. We can speculate that a few (perhaps even one) competitors of similar ability is enough to motivate creativity, whereas many strong competitors may discourage this effort.”

Or to put it another way, extrinsic motivation weakens creativity but some peer competition for a prize can improve it—up to a point. Beyond that point, creativity falls off to such a degree that the creative work ends altogether.

Bonuses Beat Prizes for Creative Work

That suggests that some competition in a creative environment can work but the format of the prize matters. As Teresa Amabile was starting to conclude that extrinsic motivation, such as a prize, always reduces creativity, she conducted another series of experiments that led her to take a more nuanced approach.

In these experiments, volunteers started an activity but were then told that they needed to stop. Some of the volunteers could then choose to leave or do a different activity. Others were told that they needed to do something else. Amabile and her co-researcher Beth Hennessey also told half the people in the second activity that they would receive payment or a reward for their work.

This time, the volunteers who were free to leave but remained for the pay showed the lowest level of creativity. They were acting like the children in the first study: producing creativity in the hope of landing a return. But the highest creativity came from those who both had to perform creative work and expected a reward for that work. They were even more creative than the people who had to perform creative work but didn’t expect a reward.

Amabile concludes that performing creative work for a reward reduces creativity. But a bonus given to someone who is performing the creative work anyway can increase creativity. Or to put it another way, extrinsic motivation can improve creativity but only if it enhances an already existing intrinsic desire to do the work.

“Overall,” she says, “my experiments have shown that extrinsic motivators that make people feel controlled or driven only by that motivator drain intrinsic motivation and stifle creativity. But extrinsic motivators that either allow a person to be more engaged, or confirm their competence, in something they are already keen to do, can synergistically add to intrinsic motivation and creativity.”

That balance between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is what workplaces should be aiming to achieve, Amabile says, but she also asks how businesses can achieve that balance. One example she gives is of a manager who rewards a team’s creativity by giving them additional resources for their next project. The assumption is that the team’s efforts are motivated by their intrinsic desires to do work that makes them proud. In return for that work, they receive a reward that enables them to satisfy that intrinsic motivation even more.

It’s an approach that hi-tech companies seem to take almost intuitively. Apple might have rewarded Jonny Ive with a high salary and a bucketload of shares but more important was a studio that contained all the milling machines and freedom the designer needed to produce prototypes and churn out products that suited his aesthetic and looked and felt entirely different. The salad bars, casual dress, and swinging chairs that characterize Silicon Valley’s start-ups aren’t presented as extras that supplement an already generous salary. They’re pitched as proof that the company recognizes its staff’s intrinsic motivation and wants to give them the conditions in which they can produce their best work.

That also means that the pull a company has on a creative employee only lasts as long as that creative employee feels able to satisfy their intrinsic motivation. Apple hasn’t produced a new kind of product since launching the iPad in 2010. Once it became clear that the company was settling for small updates to its existing product range rather than pushing out entirely new product types, Ive left the company to set up his own studio. Despite the almost limitless extrinsic motivation that Apple would have thrown at him, his own intrinsic motivation to produce designs that satisfied him was much stronger.

So when you’re looking to get the most out of a creative team, forget about salary bumps and performance prizes. Those kinds of rewards won’t just not get the most out of your team; they may even reduce its creativity.

Instead, focus on what each team member is looking to achieve from their work, whether it’s an opportunity to work on national campaign or a chance to work on a particular kind of project. Remind them why their work matters both to them and to others. Make the ability to satisfy that intrinsic motivation—and then set a new goal—the reward for the work, and you should find that they’re producing their most creative work of all.

And you can do the same for yourself. The next time you find that you’re competing for a prize, whether that prize takes the form of an award or a new contract, instead of thinking about the monetary returns, focus on the intrinsic rewards. Remind yourself that this contract will bring you closer to the work you really want to do and the goals you want to achieve. That’s the kind of motivation that will bring out your most creative ideas—which you can then find over a slice of pizza.

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