Rewarding Creativity: 3 Lessons on When it Works

It is well known that intrinsic motivation–the kind that comes from working with a task because it's interesting, involving and challenging–has the strongest relationship with individual creativity. Extrinsic motivation–especially based on monetary rewards–has a detrimental effect on creativity. But is this really true? In this article, we'll explore how to reward creativity and realize that everything may not be as it seems.

Unraveling the relationships between intrinsic motivation, extrinsic rewards, and their link to creativity poses quite the challenge. But let’s first begin with what we do know.

Motivation in relationship to creativity

There is a strong positive link between intrinsic motivation–the kind of motivation stemming from one’s own curiosity and the challenge of the task at hand–and creative outcomes. These outcomes could be in the form of new ideas or new ways of solving problems. This is because the degree of motivation determines the extent to which one will fully engage one’s skill set, energy, time, and expertise into the task or problem at hand (Amabile, 1997).

Rewards as a way of motivating individual creativity

Many organizations today use rewards (such as money or recognition) to stimulate creativity in their employees (Burroughs et al., 2011). However, scholars argue about whether rewarding creativity actually helps to stimulate it, or if it rather undermines the behavior. According to the conventional view of psychologists and organizational scholars, extrinsic rewards “crowd out” the intrinsic parts in individuals’ motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Frey & Jegen, 2001). This notion is behind why hospitals only offer very moderate rewards to their blood donors, and why voluntary work often is coupled with sparse monetary rewards. When people do something for money, they attribute their motivation to this fact, rather than to an inner value (benevolence, in the examples above).

Lesson 1: The right kind of jobs

However, other evidence point to the fact that creativity can be appropriately rewarded in organizations. It’s all about which kind of people the organization is trying to motivate and which kinds of jobs or tasks they work on. Baer, Oldham and Cummings (2003) showed that rewards could increase the creativity for employees that worked on rather simple, routine jobs. The authors argue that first of all, these jobs typically offer individuals little opportunity to exercise personal control at their work. By participating in an extrinsic reward program, individuals could thus enhance their feeling of personal control. Second, extrinsic reward systems suggest to employees working on routine jobs that their work is valued, and that they are given an opportunity to receive feedback.

Lesson 2: The right kind of people

Yet in line with the conventional line of thought, Baer and his colleagues (2003) found that individuals who were already very motivated in the first place were slightly negatively affected by extrinsic rewards. For these individuals, making them think about monetary rewards may cause them to lose interest in the task or problem at hand. Findings like these point to the fact that reward systems do not suit everybody and consequently, time and money may be wasted.

Lesson 3: The right kind of creativity

Another line of research indicates that it is important to reward a certain kind of creativity. If ideas of high quality and originality are rewarded, individuals are more likely to come up with high quality ideas in subsequent tasks. On the other hand, if any kind of ideas are rewarded (i.e. an “every idea is valuable” approach), individuals will not engage themselves fully in the generation of subsequent creative ideas, thus lowering the quality of their creativity (Eisenberger & Shanock, 2003).

Conclusion

It seems that the effect of rewarding creativity with money or recognition is more complex than what is generally held. Under the right circumstances, creativity can be stimulated using these kinds of extrinsic rewards. Yet on the other hand extrinsic rewards could lower the creativity of highly motivated employees working on challenging and complex tasks (e.g. in research and development or innovation settings).

Consequently, management should be cautious when planning reward systems tailored toward increasing organizational creativity. The reward system must be tailored to 1) the job at hand, especially the degree of job complexity, 2) the kind of people who work on those jobs, and 3) the kind of creativity that the organization is striving towards.


References

 

Amabile, T. M. (1997). Motivating creativity in organizations: On doing what you love and loving what you do. California Management Review, 40, 39-58.

Baer, M., Oldham, G. R., & Cummings, A. (2003). Rewarding creativity: When does it matter? The Leadership Quarterly, 14, 569-586.

Burroughs, J. E., Dahl, D. W., Moreau, C. P., Chattopadhyay, A., & Gorn, G. J. (2011). Facilitating and rewarding creativity during new product development. Journal of Marketing, 75, 53-67.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum

Eisenberger, R., & Shanock, L. (2003). Rewards, intrinsic motivation and creativity: A case study of conceptual and methodological isolation. Creativity Research Journal, 15, 121-130.

Frey, B. S., & Jegen, R. (2001). Motivation crowding theory. Journal of Economic Surveys, 15, 589-611.

About the author


Leif Denti is pursuing his doctoral degree of Psychology at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Psychology. His main research venue is how project leaders stimulate creativity and innovation in their project teams (project name: Management for Sweden). Leif Denti is also involved in a research project at the School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg, studying organizational factors that may influence problem solving in project teams. Leif Denti holds a licentiate degree in Psychology at the University of Gothenburg.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffrey.baumgartner Jeffrey Baumgartner

    Nice article, Leif!

    I’ve had, and heard through anecdotal evidence, good experience rewarding teams rather than individuals. Logically, this makes sense. If you reward an entire team, you promote collaboration within the team, but competition between the teams. However, if you reward individuals, you encourage people not to collaborate if they fear others may take credit for their ideas.

    I have not come across any research on this issue — but, to be honest, have not actively sought it. However, it would be an interesting avenue to explore. Thoughts? Experience?

  • Terje A. Tonsberg

    A “reward” is not a uniform thing. A piece of wood can be a work of art to A, firewood to B, and a walking stick to C. What is considered a reward is a meaning in the eyes of the beholder. I would like to meet someone who would feel demotivated by being offered a reward that he appreciates, E.g. not something he does not even desire or is cynical about.

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