Creative Tension: A Crucial Component of Creativity in the Workplace

Lori Reisenbichler

University of North Texas
October 23, 1995
Creativity is very positively valued in our society. It has meaningful application for everyone, from the pre-schooler to the corporate executive. Increasingly, the corporate world has focused on creativity as a way to respond to the rapid changes in the global marketplace. In order to better understand how people can increase their personal mastery of creativity, this paper will discuss many of the myths about creativity in our society. The distinction between creating and problem solving will be made. Much research supports the idea that one of the crucial components of creativity is intrinsic motivation, so this paper will discuss how motivation comes from the tension between a clear vision and a realistic perception of our current situation. The social factors that contribute to creativity in the workplace will be examined and support for the concept of creative tension is presented.

Creative Tension: A Crucial Component of Creativity in the Workplace

The corporate world reflects many myths about creativity. Since the 1950's, business leaders have begun to think seriously about encouraging their workers to function more creatively in the workplace. Most corporate leaders feel some pressure from outside forces and today have problems due to changes in the global marketplace, resulting from new technologies and increased competition. These are new problems, and the old solutions simply aren't working to keep businesses growing. What American businesses need, it is commonly believed, are some innovative solutions to these complex problems. Some companies then go out to assess and hire "creative" personalities. Others feel creativity is out of reach, since it is the domain of the mentally ill, the homosexual, the alcoholic, and the genius. Others wait and pressure their staffs for a flash of inspiration. An overwhelming majority adopt brainstorming or other techniques, designed to encourage divergent thinking. There are a few key myths that are particularly potent in the 1990's --
(1) that creative people are geniuses that are born with special abilities,
(2) that creativity is a special gift of the homosexual,
(3) that creativity is enhanced by alcohol consumption,
(4) that creativity is one step away from mental illness,
(5) that creativity occurs in a flash of inspirtation, and
(6) that creativity can be induced through brainstorming, a divergent thinking technique.

It is important to consider these myths in more detail, and review some of the empirical research related to creativity.

The Myth of the Creative Genius
There are many persistent myths in our society about creativity. The most pervasive, probably because it has endured the ages, is the myth of the creative genius. At its core is the belief that creative accomplishments come about through great leaps of imagination which occur, because creative individuals are capable of extraordinary thought processes. In addition to their intellectual capacity, creative individuals are assumed to possess extraordinary personality characteristics which also play a role in bringing about creative leaps (Weisberg, 1986). This means that a truly creative person is outside the norm and is naturally endowed with unusual talents and capacity. Geniuses are born, and not made. So if an individual does not display some unusual capacity for the arts and sciences early in life, the recognition of genius may not occur. Following this thought, if an individual has not figured out that he/she is a genius by the time he/she obtains employment, nothing in the employment experience would affect his/her non-genius status.

Philosopher John Robertson pointed out in 1937 that a predominant number of creative individuals were in some way economically privileged (as cited by Montuori and Purser, 1995). If one assumes that genius emerges no matter what, little or no attention needs to be paid to creating a supportive environment (Montuori and Purser, 1995). In the corporate world, the implications are clear. If there are creative types among the working class, their contributions will emerge as a result. Meanwhile, the education and emphasis is placed on the management level employees, since they would more likely benefit from them.

Are there personality characteristics that are the basis for creative genius in the arts and sciences? Western thinkers have been intrigued by this question for many years. If we could isolate the personal characteristics of creative individuals, we could assess children and adults for their creative potential and increase it through education (Weisberg, 1986). To be consistent with this view, creative thinking is considered more than a simple skill -- a personality trait of an individual that can be expanded.

Donald Mackinnon (as cited in Weisberg, 1986), compared the top 40 architects in their field with two other groups -- one made up of the associates of the top architects and one made up of others chosen from the 1955 Directory of Architects, who were less accomplished, "non-creative" architects. Since the top 40 architects were viewed by their peers and acknowledged by the public as creative, this represents an excellent matching of creative genius to two comparison groups. The comparison groups were good choices because they represented the less accomplished architects within the same firm, as well as a selected sample of less accomplished architects in the field. The creative group demonstrated different personality characteristics than the noncreative group, but no significant difference from their associates. Cutting across the many individual studies is the emergence of a profile: the extremely creative personality emerges as hard-working, ambitious, observant, critical, flexible, independent, courageous and imaginative (Starker, 1985). It is interesting that the same personality characteristics were evident in the associates, who were considered less successful and less creative than the master architects. However, they worked in the same environments. Unfortunately, information about their work environment is not available. Could the differences in personality characteristics be a function of, or affected by, the social environment in the workplace?

Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi (as cited in Weisberg, 1986) performed assessments of varying type on 205 art students in the late 1960's. Follow-ups were then performed on 31 students five or six years after graduation to see if their scores on the assessment tests correlated with any success in the art world. Of the 31 students, 15 had severed any connection with the art world. Seven were in careers only peripherally related to art. Only nine artists were showing their artwork, and only one had achieved unqualified success. The successful artists did not score significantly higher on intelligence or divergent thinking than the unsuccessful artists. Since so much of genius status has to do with the world's assessment of it, this appears to be a significant finding. The success of an artist may or may not be linked to his or her creativity.

Creative geniuses' scores on assessment tests do not correlate at all with their later creative successes. There are some common characteristics that have surfaced in studies of creative individuals. Rothenberg (1990, p. 8) observes, "there are some common psychological factors operating in varying types of creative processes in art, science, and other productive fields. These common factors consist particularly of special types of thinking patterns used by creative persons during the process of creation itself." It appears that there is no specific personality type associated with outstanding creativity. While some individuals clearly have more potential for creativity than others, and some have more opportunity for creative expression than others, there is no "proof" that there are traits inherent in a person that preclude creative genius. We need not be models of the "creative personality" to reap a share of the rewards of creativity (Starker, 1985).

Only one characteristic of personality and orientation to life and work is absolutely, across the board, present in all creative people: motivation. Creative people are extraordinarily highly motivated, both to work and to produce, but more than that, they are motivated to produce entities that are both new and valuable -- creations. They want specifically to create and be creative, not merely successful or effective or competent. (Rothenberg, 1990). Creative people don't retire. It is a powerful thing to understand that one can create. It is not something that only a lucky few are born with the ability to do. It is an orientation to life that can be learned.

The Myth of Homosexuality Enhancing Creativity
The next common myth to be addressed is the stereotype of the creative homosexual. With the recent onslaught of AIDS, the public has taken notice of the disease's particular effect in creative fields -- particularly the performing arts such as film, theater, and dance. Anyone with any meaningful contact with the gay population can attest that there are both creative and non-creative homosexuals. Is there something about the experience of being homosexual in our society that causes creativity?

Domino (as cited by Rothenberg, 1995) conducted a controlled empirical study in 1977 that demonstrated that homosexual individuals did not score higher on creativity tests than did heterosexuals, but in fact scored significantly lower. There are to date no known statistical bases for assuming that homosexuals are more successfully creative than are heterosexuals.

Rothenberg (1990) finds parallels that support that homosexuality has something to do with the creativity of certain individuals, but no basic relationship to creative capacity in general. He states that "with the possible exception of ancient Greek society in which bisexuality and homosexuality were widely accepted, homosexual persons often find themselves discriminated against or excluded and on the outside fringe of their society, a condition social scientists call being 'marginal'. This marginality...seems to have something to do with a person's learning to tolerate ambiguity, project varying points of view, and strike out in new directions - factors that seem to play an important role in creative orientation and ability.

Additionally, it appears that the performing arts provide a place in society that male homosexuals can gain social acceptance. In a complex way, the society supports and is, in turn, led to some extent by these artists (Rothenberg, 1990). Any individual that truly appreciates the arts cannot help but appreciate the contributions of homosexual artists to the field. It appears that the link between homosexuality and creativity is less a function of genetic selection, and more a product of societal pressures and approvals.

The Myth of Alcohol Enhancing Creativity
The basic tenet of this myth is the "proof" that any great writer will attest to the benefits of alcohol in the creative writing process. Look at Hemingway and Faulkner -- men who made themselves famous due to their writings and infamous due to their drinking. Heavy use of alcohol among highly creative persons, especially writers, is surprisingly frequent. In the United States, five of the eight writers who have won the Nobel Prize for literature have all suffered at some time from severe alcohol abuse and/or dependence (Rothenberg, 1990). Does alcohol facilitate the creative process or -- now that genetic factors have been touted as operating in alcoholism -- is there some biological propensity connecting creativity with a need to drink? (Rothenberg, 1990)

In fact, there have been several studies on the effects of alcohol on creativity. Further, Lang, Verrat and Watt (1984, as cited by Gustafson & Norlander, 1994) used a balanced placebo design and tested subjects on four different creativity tests. Alcohol did not affect the creative process, but later when subjects evaluated their work, subjects who thought they had consumed alcohol evaluated their performances more positively than subjects who thought they had not received alcohol. In a separate study, Gustafson reported that alcohol in fact reduces the number of creative solutions produced in response to a stimulus object on a traditional creativity test. Results indicated that a moderate dose of alcohol impairs the ability to reason deductively and reduces the self-imposed time spent on an intellectual task. The creative process, then is inhibited by negatively affecting abilities related to the initial phase of the process. Any impairment during the initial phase sets limits for what can be achieved during later phases.

Lowe (1994), in a balanced placebo experimental study, found that moderate doses of alcohol did not produce any significant change in performance on a creativity test. However, there were significant individual differences. In subjects with creativity scores above the mean under the Placebo condition, alcohol produced significant decrements, whereas in subjects with below-average creativity scores under the Placebo condition, significant increments were observed with alcohol. This would lead to the conclusion that any natural tendency toward creativity is stifled under alcohol. However, in non-creative people, alcohol may serve to lessen inhibitions and increase creativity.

Gustafson and Norlander (1994) found that people drink more alcohol after hard creative work than after hard non-creative work. Rothenberg (1990) collected data on the alcohol consumption patterns of writers and found evidence that supports this finding. Very few did their actual writing, or even thinking about writing, while under the influence of alcohol. Or to put it more exactly, their writing was seldom successful when done under the influence of alcohol, and at various points in their lives, drinking absolutely interfered with their ability to do any creative work. By and large, they did not use alcohol when they were actually engaged in writing, but tended to drink when they were finished for the day. The self-imposed loneliness and freedom of the writer's lifestyle may enhance the proclivity to drink. Rothenberg (1990) also suggests that what appears to be a cardinal issue is the need to use alcohol to cope with the anxiety that is generated by the creative process itself. Because the creative process, when it is successful, inevitably involves the creative person's unearthing of unconscious material to some degree, there is always a measure of anxiety. Later, we will see that Fritz (1989) describes this anxiety as creative tension.

Research does not support the popular notion that drinking alcohol enhances creativity by reducing inhibitions. Contrary to popular belief, drinking alcohol does not stimulate creative thinking by creating endorphins in the brain.

The Myth of Creativity as Madness or Mental Illness
Aristotle reportedly said that "no great genius was without a mixture of insanity" (Rothenberg, 1990). The stereotype of the mad scientist involves him/her too busy creating to pay attention to the rest of the world, and becoming obsessed with the creative process until he/she loses touch with reality. Plato claimed that the poet in the throes of creation is mad. Plato's original formulation was the madness of the poet was the result of "divine madness" -- a possession by the Muses (Weisberg, 1994). One reason for the traditional linking of mental illness and creativity is that creative thought processes are unusual in structure. Creative experiences and descriptions of creative breakthroughs sometimes appear, on the surface, to be similar to abnormal ones (Rothenberg, 1990).

Recently, research has investigated the connection between bipolar disorder, known as manic depression, and the creative process. Jamison (1989, as cited by Weisberg, 1994) found that creative individuals, especially poets, reported that their psychological and physiological states during periods of great creative productivity were very similar to those during a manic period. Poetic creativity especially has usually been linked with schizophrenia. This is in part because primary process cognition has often been thought to operate prominently in both schizophrenia and the composing of poetry (Rothenberg, 1990). In 1987, Andreasen (as cited by Weisberg, 1994) found there was a higher incidence of affective disorder in writers than control subjects, with almost half the writers experiencing a bipolar disorder. Other correlational studies by Jamison and her colleagues have shown a high degree of bipolar affective disorder in creative people, especially poets, and a very high frequency of suicide in creative individuals (as cited in Weisberg, 1994).

However, correlations do not indicate causal relationships. Weisberg (1994) investigated several hypotheses about the relationship of creativity to manic depression using a historical case study of the composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who is generally acknowledged to have suffered from bipolar disorder. He compared Schumann's mood (self reported through letters, medical records, and other biographical information) and his production of musical compositions over the span of his lifetime. Weisberg (1994) tested several hypotheses, and outlined the content and results of his research; see Table A.

Table A

Summary of Weisberg's Research on Manic Depression and Creativity

Hypothesis: Mania increases creativity
Prediction: Positive correlation between number of compositions and proportion of high quality compositions in each year
Correlation confirmed? No

Hypothesis: Depression increases creativity
Prediction: Negative correlation between number of compositions and proportion of high quality compositions in each year
Correlation confirmed? No

Hypothesis: Depression increases creativity in subsequent years
Prediction: Negative correlation between number of compositions in a given year and proportion of high quality compositions in the next year, and next year plus one
Correlation confirmed? Lag of one year - no

Hypothesis: Mood increases only motivation
Prediction: Positive correlation between number of compositions in a given year and number of high quality compositions in that year
Correlation confirmed? Yes

Therefore, Weisberg (1994) concludes that manic depression is not linked in any way to creativity, but that mood is linked to motivation. To the degree that mental illnesses affect mood, the individual's motivation for creative production will be affected.

Rothenberg (1990) believes that creative processes may turn into psychotic ones, but seldom does the reverse occur without some prior resolution of illness and reduction of anxiety. All types of mental illness engender anxiety that tends to disrupt creative functioning. Because the creative process involves both cognitive strain and anxiety produced by the unearthing of unconscious material, any preexisting sources of anxiety dampen and interrupt creative accomplishment.

The Myth of Sudden Inspiration ("Aha!")
One important aspect of the traditional view of creativity is that creation occurs in flashes of insight, sometimes called "aha!" reactions. This view of creativity maintains one's mind must be freed of traditional problem solving techniques and that if one can break away from the hold of past experiences, one may experience spontaneous solutions to problems (Weisberg, 1986). Additionally, there are many anecdotes of creative artists who have their creations simply occur to them, without prior thought, appearing to them in dreams, or other unconscious states (Weisberg, 1986).

In order to examine this myth, we must look at the most commonly accepted explanation of the creative process. Starker (1985) provides a succint version of the stages of the creative process, which has been summarized by the author in Table B.

Table B

Stages of the Creative Process, as summarized by Starker

Includes our education, opportunities, acquisition of cognitive skills and motivation to pursue our interests. Includes the identification of the problem.

Includes attempting all alternative solutions known, using our resources and trial and error.

If no solution is found in the previous phase, this is the inevitable result of time and effort expended with no result.

Includes putting it aside, removing it from the focus of attention. Often an important step for unconscious processing.

The "aha!" experience that seems to come spontaneously and unpredictably. May occur during sleep or daydreams.

The implementation phase, or how the idea translates into action.

Using Starker's explanation of the creative process, it is clear that the insight phase occurs, precisely because there has been so much happening before that point. However, the experience of insight is powerful and can be emotional, and is often the only part of the creative process that may be in our awareness and therefore warrants explanation. It is certainly the most mystical part of the process, and therefore the subject of much fascination. However, it does not occur in a vacumn.

The Myth of Divergent Thinking
Alex F. Osborn wrote the cornerstone book on business creativity, How to Think Up, in 1942. His writings opened management's eyes to the fact they could deliberately stimulate creativity through the training of employees. Businesses have taken hold of Osborn's ideas, one in particular. In a survey of 105 businesses in the Orlando, Florida area, Fernald and Nickolenko (1993) found that by far, the most commonly used creative technique was brainstorming. 92% of the firms responding to the survey reported that they used brainstorming for creative problem solving.

Brainstorming works on the premise that by increasing divergent thinking, there will be an increase in solutions (Osborn, 1979). The more ideas, the higher the chance for an original or good idea. However, brainstorming does not include mechanisms for converging that are as powerful as the mechanisms for divergence. Therefore, the groups tend to resort to judgement during convergence phase and throw out much of the creativity they have generated (Adams, 1986).

Some important research has compared group versus individual performance on solving problems using brainstorming. Dunnette, Campbell and Jastaad (as cited by Weisberg, 1986) used research scientists and advertising workers, and compared groups of four with individual performance on problem solving. The results indicated that working in groups was less effective than working alone. These surprising results were explained by Dunnette's observations that: groups tended to follow the same train of thought longer than individuals did and some individuals were inhibited by the group. Bouchard and Hare (as cited by Weisberg, 1986) compared the performance of real and nominal groups made up of five, seven and nine members and replicated the findings of Dunnette et al. The nominal groups outperformed the real groups at each size, and the difference between the two conditions increased as group size increased. Bouchard feels, however, that group problem solving is appropriate if: (a) the problem requires several different types of expertise, and (b) it is important to maximize the chances that the solution will be accepted (as cited in Weisberg, 1986).

Another basic assumption of brainstorming is that by deferring judgement, groups will entertain more ideas, which will lead to a better solution. In a study by Weisskopf-Joelson and Eliseo (as cited by Weisberg, 1986), Purdue University undergraduates in two groups were given instructions that one should use brainstorming and the second group should use critical analysis as ideas were produced. The results revealed that the brainstorming groups produced more ideas overall, but not more good ideas. The critical analysis groups produced fewer ideas, but the same number of high quality ideas as the brainstorming groups.

Divergent thinking produces a volume of ideas, but effective creativity produces novel ideas that produce a desired result. Fritz's (1989, p. 38) comments on brainstorming make an important distinction: "This approach leaves out the vital question of the creative process: What do I want to create? The inventiveness of the creative process does not come from generating alternatives, but from generating a path from the original concept of what you want to create to the final creation of it in reality." Osborn (1941) made an important contribution to fostering creativity in the workplace. As companies practice with his techniques, now fifty years old, it may be time to update our thinking on this issue.

Summary of Myths
The area of creativity is richly researched. There are persistent myths about creativity in our society, some of which are partially true or appear to have meaningful applications to everyday life. To summarize the findings about these myths:

1. Creative individuals exhibit a common pattern of personality traits, but it is not proven that those traits are innate. Furthermore, assessments of creativity do not predict later creative successes.

2. The experience of being homosexual in society is largely one of marginality and this may produce a tolerance for ambiguity and other precursors to creativity. Being homosexual may have a lot to do with some individuals' creativity, but is in no way a requisite orientation to creativity in general.

3. Alcohol has been shown to inhibit the creativity of creative people and to decrease persistence to creative tasks. However, it is does provide a boost to confidence, a common release after creative work, and may enhance the creativity of non-creative persons.

4. Creativity is not linked in any qualitative way to manic depression or other forms of mental illness. In manic depression, elevated mood increases motivation to create, but not necessarily creativity.

5. The "aha!" experience of creative individuals is powerful and emotional, but does not occur in a vacumn. Insight is a normal part of the creative process, and it occurs after periods of intense concentration and withdrawal.

6. Divergent thinking, commonly displayed in the brainstorming technique, enjoys widespread popularity. However, groups are sometimes less productive than individuals at generating creative solutions to problems. Some groups become judgmental during convergence and throw out their most creative ideas. Brainstorming is a tool that is widely misused in organizations.

Creating versus Problem Solving
The rise in interest in creativity training in organizations has paralleled the rise in complexity in the global marketplace. Organizations are facing problems they never anticipated and therefore have no prior experience at solving. Creative solutions are becoming necessary to a business for its very survival. However, there is a profound difference between problem solving and creating that often gets blurred in the rhetoric. Problem solving is taking action to have something go away -- the problem. Creating is taking action to have something come into being -- the creation (Fritz, 1989). There is a fundamental difference in orientation.

Many organizations approach life as a series of problems to be solved. What drives the action is the intensity of the problem. The most urgent problems deserve our first, and best energy to devote to a creative solution. However, this approach creates a self-defeating cycle, which Fritz (1989, p. 34) describes as follows:

The problem:
--leads to action to solve the problem
--leads to less intensity of the problem
--leads to less action to solve the problem
--leads to the problem remaining.

Once the intensity of the problem is resolved at some level, there are no longer organizational forces to drive the action. That energy is diverted to the next problem, until its intensity is lessened. No matter how creative our solution is, if we operate in this paradigm, there will be no fundamental change or improvement over the long term.

For an organization that wants to seriously review its orientation to problem solving and wants to foster creativity, there must be a shift in basic intention. It is not a matter of applying the myths or purchasing the latest creativity training module for employees. Organizations don't need to focus on hiring creative people to bring about this orientation. They don't need to provide incentives and other organizational pressures to reward the occasional flashes of inspiration that may occur. They don't need to lock all their managers in a room and brainstorm every time they need ideas. Organizations need to understand the dynamic of creative tension.

Copyright 1996, University of North Texas. All Rights Reserved.


MAE 189 Group Project Home