“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure” P. Marshall
Creativity is the cornerstone of organizational success in today’s economy. At the same time, employees face considerable work pressure, which might undermine their creativity. When these two prevalent organizational factors come together, oftentimes the most durable fundament of organizational success is built. From practical experience we know that a lot of genius ideas are born under high pressure. In our latest paper (Gutnick, Walter, Nijstad, & De Dreu, in press) we made an attempt to explain why.
Two theoretical perspectives from the stress and creativity literatures were integrated to develop a new conceptual model that conceptualizes the effects of work pressure on creative performance. Our model proposes that pressure triggers a challenge and threat reaction, which, in turn, influence creativity by shaping employees’ cognitive flexibility and/or persistence.
A typical situation where an employee experiences pressure is characterized by the experience of high demands and high stakes, meaning when the task is hard to accomplish and there is a lot to gain or loose. Despite an increasing amount of empirical research on the role of pressure for employee creativity, this relationship has remained ambiguous and unclear.
Thus we developed a present model which suggests that work pressure has the potential to either promote or diminish employees’ creativity in complex ways.
When employees are confronted with pressure, such as high workload, emotional demands and role conflicts, they feel challenged at the one hand (realizing potential gains or opportunities, experiencing positive affect and motivationally oriented towards an approach orientation) and threatened on the other. Threat is associated with the anticipation of imminent harm. It reflects a psychological state focused on avoiding unfavorable outcomes, is associated with negative affect (such as fear) and triggers motivational escape-avoidance tendencies. We assume that one of the reactions is dominant (although they can be both co-occur and thus are not necessarily depending on each other). Which one will be the more dominant one mainly depends on how many resources are available to the employee in the pressure situation. Resources are factors that contribute to successfully dealing with the pressure, such as social support, a positive organizational climate, but certainly some leadership behaviors as well.
Most research so far (and a common lay opinion) was assuming that creativity can exclusively develop under the conditions of a challenge state, that is associated with higher flexibility and similar positive emotional and cognitive features.
This model gives credit to the widely in practice observed phenomenon that oftentimes under pressure some of us have the best ideas. So how can creativity still evolve under these circumstances? It can. But this depends on a pattern of conditions that need to be fulfilled. A very important family of factors is referring to employee commitment, commitment to the company, to their function, their colleagues, their task. When we think about a situation when it is clear to me as an individual that there is nothing to gain anymore, but only to loose, some of us will continue to work on a task, even if they cannot take advantage of it anymore. Why do they do that? We think it’s very logic and explainable by commitment. If I am committed to the task, I will continue to work on it, even if I cannot fulfill it perfectly. If I am committed to the company, I will try to finish the task, even when I know I cannot live up to my standards with my performance, but in order to prevent further loss/damage I will continue to try my best.
Of course, one has to consider not only the short-term consequences of working under pressure (which can be increased creativity for instance) but also the risks, such as health problems, burnout and similar.
For everyday practice that means that deadlines and other sources of pressure are not necessarily bad for employee creativity but only can have positive effects on creativity, when there is an environment that makes me commit to my tasks, my organization, my goals. This offers various chances for the organizations.
Gutnick, D., Walter, F., Nijstad, B., & De Dreu, C. K. W. In press. Creative performance under pressure: An integrative conceptual framework. Organizational Psychology Review.