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The Dark Side of Creativity

Managers need to rethink the value they place on innovation.

Key points

  • Creativity is often lauded by popular press, but research reveals that the truth is more nuanced.
  • Research shows that originality is elusive and challenging to conjure on demand.
  • Managers can be more effective by reassessing whether creativity is actually needed and adopting reasonable approaches to promote creativity.

Here on Psychology Today, I focus on "organizational dichotomies." In essence, there are a host of paradoxes, Catch-22s, and enigmas in the workforce. Effective managers need to be on constant lookout to identify areas where, in the words of Adam Grant, they need to "think again." This vigilance is essential when evaluating concepts that are almost always cast in a positive light.

Since headlines, books, and blog articles constantly encourage managers to promote creativity, this concept is a great place to reconsider how you think about organizational life.

The hallmark of innovation is that unconventional methods usually precede revelations and "aha" moments.

For instance, when intoxicated, people perform better in creative problem-solving. Further, in three out of four studies, research has shown that when you multitask—such as sending emails during a meeting—you are also more creative in subsequent task performance.

Anecdotally, many people will tell you that their best and most creative ideas come when they are walking the dog, waking up from a nap, or taking a shower. Philo Farnsworth—the inventor of the television—got his inspiration while plowing a field. Indeed, one study provides preliminary evidence that about one-fifth of good ideas come when the mind is wandering.

As a manager, what are the practical implications of these findings? Hold meetings at a bar? Tell employees to skip work on Friday and to daydream? Encourage remote workers to fit a shower in between two Zoom calls? While we generally think of creativity as universally desirable, creativity represents one of the most ubiquitous enigmas in organizations. For example, humans are more likely to act unethically when a creative mindset is activated.

The first point managers need to rethink is whether creativity is all it is cracked up to be.

Focusing on creativity makes sense for companies built on the foundation of innovation—such as advertising corporations or the film industry. However, as the authors of the book Cracked It! emphasize, we generally would be cautious of doctors or mechanics who "creatively" perform surgery or replace a transmission. Thus, managers should evaluate whether they are seeking creativity because it is critical for the task or if they are being duped by Silicon Valley myths.

Assuming creativity is needed, there are several ways to conceptualize creativity, and we should be cautious of oversimplifying or being attracted to the most novel or exciting way of inducing creativity. Case in point, research indicates that although cannabis use biases evaluations of creativity (i.e., people self-evaluate their own ideas as being more creative), objective measurements of creativity show no statistically significant improvements. Instead of turning to alcohol or cannabis, let your employees become immersed in nature to increase creativity. In addition to promoting creativity, your employees will reap a whole host of other benefits associated with biophilic work design.

Overall, avoid expensive or ethereal techniques that promise creativity. Psychology Today suggests various steps to (reasonably) improve your creativity. Indeed, a whole literature of research is dedicated to creativity in organizations.

But remember, creativity refuses to be domesticated, and fostering creativity on your team will take time and patience. In his book Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmul (co-founder of Pixar) reminds us that ideas do not "float in the ether, fully formed," but, rather, good ideas are "forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people."

In sum, Robert Sutton aptly noted that "the holy grail for companies has been innovation." Managers face continued pressure to be creative, bold, and original today. However, managers need to disconnect from all the noise and rethink how much value they place on creativity and what they "know" about its antecedents. In many instances, creativity may not be the answer, or simple (and free) strategies can help your team become creative when necessary.


Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PloS one, 7(12), e51474.

Benedek, M., Panzierer, L., Jauk, E., & Neubauer, A. C. (2017). Creativity on tap? Effects of alcohol intoxication on creative cognition. Consciousness and Cognition, 56, 128-134.

Dietrich, A. (2019). Types of creativity. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 26, 1-12.

Gable, S. L., Hopper, E. A., & Schooler, J. W. (2019). When the muses strike: Creative ideas of physicists and writers routinely occur during mind wandering. Psychological Science, 30(3), 396-404.

George, J. M. (2007). 9 Creativity in organizations. Academy of Management Annals, 1(1), 439-477.

Gino, F., & Ariely, D. (2012). The dark side of creativity: Original thinkers can be more dishonest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(3), 445–459.

Heng, Y. T., Barnes, C. M., & Yam, K. C. (2022). Cannabis use does not increase actual creativity but biases evaluations of creativity. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Kapadia, C., & Melwani, S. (2021). More tasks, more ideas: The positive spillover effects of multitasking on subsequent creativity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(4), 542.

Klotz, A. C., & Bolino, M. C. (2021). Bringing the great outdoors into the workplace: The energizing effect of biophilic work design. Academy of Management Review, 46(2), 231-251.

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