Want to motivate staff to think creatively? Money trumps praise as an incentive

Employers seeking to fuel creativity in the workplace may be better served focusing on monetary rewards rather than praise.

Research co-written by University of Illinois associate professor of business administration Ravi Mehta suggests this based off the results from a number of experiments examining the influence on monetary and social-based rewards like recognition.

In times past, researchers have believed that money hurts creativity, but as Mehta explains, there has been little research done on this issue around the behaviour of adults in the workplace.

“Most of that prior research was conducted with children as the test subjects, and the participants were not specifically told that the reward [they received] was for being creative,” Mehta explained last month.

“So, 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?”

The experiments, outlined in a paper to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggest when it comes to creativity-contingent rewards, monetary rewards induce “a performance focus”, enhancing the motivation to be original.

By contrast, social-recognition rewards induce “a normative focus”, negatively influencing the motivation to be original.

“We found that if you tell people to be creative and then give them monetary rewards, they will be more creative,” Mehta explains.

“But wouldn’t the same be true of all rewards? If you tell people to be creative and then give them a social-recognition reward instead of money, then they’ll be just as creative as those you reward with money, right? We found no empirical evidence for that.”

Mehta suggests social recognition is “all about people knowing about you and your work, and thereby influencing one to act more in accordance with social norms”. Creativity, on the other hand, means “coming up with something different, something novel, something that is not the norm”.

“As adults, we don’t want to come up with something that’s too radical, too out-there, especially when we know that our peers will be judging us,” Mehta said.

“Most of our daily activities as working adults are about adhering to social norms. We don’t want to stand out too much.”

However, monetary rewards fuel the desire to be original, encouraging creativity that taps into thinking beyond norms.

Social recognition, by contrast, can see people pander to norms and not want to be judged for their ideas, which could mean there’s consequently less motivation to be creative.

“There’s a trend among companies for crowdsourcing ideas or user-generated content,” Mehta says.

“Virtually all social media is user or consumer-driven. This ought to point them in the right direction: money talks, but social recognition doesn’t.”

Never miss a story: sign up to SmartCompany’s free daily newsletter and find our best stories on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn and Instagram.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments