How to Encourage Creativity and Problem Solving Among Staff – Why Incentives Don’t Work

Finding ways to get the most out of staff is a constant struggle for business owners and managers who are constantly told different things and given different information. One minute it’s a good idea to incentivise staff with potential bonuses, perks and rewards, the next that same advice is apparently wrong. How do you know what to believe and what do you do for best? And why is there so much disagreement in the first place?

Well as it happens, the question really comes down to how you define motivation. There is of course more than one type of motivation and as the needs of the organisation vary, so the best ways to get more out of staff change too. It turns out that when you’re trying to encourage creativity and out-of-the-box thinking specifically, then incentives are more damaging than helpful.

Understanding Creativity

And to understand why this is the case we need to break things down further and examine exactly what we mean by creativity. How do you define creativity? How do you measure problem solving ability?

While opinions vary on this matter, one aspect that is generally agreed to be indicative of wider creativity and problem-solving skill is what’s known as ‘functional fixedness’. This term refers to the ability or inability that we have to think of objects in ways other than their intended use. So if you were to take a hammer for instance, functional fixedness would be the ‘cognitive bias’ that prevented you from thinking of using it to scratch your back. It’s a hammer, not a back scratcher.

A great demonstration of this flaw in our thinking is something called ‘the candle box experiment’. Here participants are given a box of tacks and a candle and they’re asked to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that it can burn while being poised there. Most people will try to tack the candle to the wall which will of course meet with disaster, but after a while they will start to think of alternative solutions at which point they get over their functional fixedness, realise that the box itself is a useful resource, and then tack that to the wall to stand the candle in.

The reason this is relevant to this particular discussion is that incentives and external motivation have actually been shown to make participants slower to come up with the solution.

The Right Motivation for the Right Environment

The reason for this is that motivation can actually create some stress as you feel the need to amp yourself up to work towards the reward. This in turn can result in a kind of ‘tunnel vision’ as you approach your work – focussed hard on the task at hand.

Conversely creativity it appears is most likely to occur when we step back and relax. This in turn helps us to allow our minds to wander and enables us to see more connections between disparate ideas. And many believe that this is what creativity really is: the ability to combine unconnected ideas and combine them in unique new ways. Other studies show that a sense of ownership and pride in their work can also help to encourage staff to be more creative and original with their thinking, while allowing discourse between team members has been shown to incubate the generation of new ideas too.

So if you want your staff to provide data entry then you can help them to do this by providing incentives and rewards while giving them the best IT support. For other more creative tasks however it may be better to help them to relax, to let them take a step back and to give them the freedom to experiment and a sense of ownership. There’s a reason that Google give their staff free time to work on their own projects… and happen to be one of the largest and most transformative businesses in the world!


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