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The Best Way to Inspire Creativity in Others Isn't What You Might Think

While everyone appreciates a pat on the back, that's not the most powerful way to promote highly creative thinking.


If you think an awards dinner or a plaque is the best way to recognize your creative employees, well, maybe you’re trying to be too creative in your approach.

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Turns out, monetary rewards are the best way to promote creative work. Shocked? It’s true. While we often stereotype artists, musicians, designers and other creatives as people focused on fame and recognition, that thinking is far-off. Like the rest of us, these people are just as motivated by money.

Related: 4 Ways Employee Incentives Can Drive Engagement and Retention

A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that rewarding people for their imaginative, creative and original works through social recognition doesn’t enhance creativity. Instead, cash rewards are more motivating to these creatives.

“The general consensus in the research literature on creativity is that money hurts creativity,” said Ravi Mehta, a University of Illinois professor who co-authored the study. He and his colleagues sought exceptions to this thinking. “What is it about the contingency of rewards that impacts creativity, and would adults respond to all types of creativity-contingent rewards the same way?”

Related: 5 Ways to Improve Your Entrepreneurial Creativity

To answer these questions, Mehta and other study co-authors conducted a series of five experiments examining the impacts that monetary and social recognition have on a person’s creative performance. They found that money made people more creative, inducing a “performance focus” which motivated people to be more original and inventive. Social recognition induced a “normative focus,” which deterred creativity.

In other words, a desire to please others can stifle creative thinking. “Social recognition reward kills creativity, because it makes creators more risk-averse,” Mehta said. “It appeals to conformity, to not standing out.” Because people fear that being too radical and out-there will cause their peers to judge them, social recognition influences them to abide by social norms.

Related: You Can Boost Your Creativity by Imagining You're Someone Else

While social recognition may result in a creative person getting more exposure for their work, Mehta points out that, “People who value creativity value the bizarre, the stuff that’s out there. Therefore, they’re less likely to care about the approval of others, or a sense of belonging with their peers.” That’s why, when you offer a monetary reward rather than a social one, people are more motivated to outperform others and find ways to be original.

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