Several ESCP Business School colleagues have recently engaged on this platform in a debate on the nature of well-being and its relation to work, and more specifically to management. Their views contrast two opposing perspectives on well-being.
On the one hand, they consider a contemporary notion of well-being and harmony as explored and promoted within the positive psychology and liberated enterprise movements, while entertaining, on the other hand, the more philosophical and provocative proposition that the search for well-being can in fact stand in the way of real utopia by making the acceptance of risk and imbalance undesirable. Only by pushing beyond one’s natural routines and boundaries can greater fulfillment ensue, suggest the more Nietzschean among us.
We observe this tension in a very real way in organisations across sectors. The US asset management firm Bridgewater is famous for having developed a culture of “radical transparency” that includes principles such as “be willing to ‘shoot the people you love’”, hardly a recipe for harmony and well-being.
The pendulum is definitely swinging away from such practices, however. In recent years, many organisations have moved towards promoting harmony and happiness. Beyond the office massages, unlimited time off and other corporate perks associated with Silicon Valley startups, there are notable examples of putting employee well-being at the heart of corporate strategy. Zappos, the US-based e-commerce platform and unit of Amazon, was built on “delivering happiness.” Its late CEO Tony Hsieh became an evangelist for the principle that a happiness-focused culture delivers happiness to its customers.
Some companies that had traditionally encouraged internal conflict and confrontation as markers of healthy tension and risk-taking, are moving towards promoting greater harmony. In an upcoming co-authored book, we relate the closure in recent years of L’Oréal’s historic headquarters “confrontation room” and the company’s adoption of a “simplicity” manifesto, including a mantra affirming that “cooperation is the new confrontation”. Behind these strategic moves is the premise that happier employees will deliver increased creative thinking and drive greater innovation and performance. Naïve illusion, or clever calculation?
Is Creativity Fed by Contentment or Contention?
Beyond the question of whether management should concern itself with the well-being of its employees is that of the relationship between well-being and creativity. Does the organisation that promotes well-being and harmony inhibit rather than promote creativity? Does the discomfort of tension and risk indeed result in greater creativity and innovation? In the same way, does creativity promote well-being or, conversely, does it result in an unquenchable and uncomfortable yearning for something more or different?
Academic research on this topic is remarkably inconclusive. The first thought that comes to mind in considering the relationship between well-being and creativity is the “mad genius stereotype” of tortured artists, poets and musicians. We think of Van Gogh’s struggles and suicide, Rimbaud’s purported schizophrenia, and many more unfortunate stories. A study of jazz musicians finds evidence that they suffer from higher-than-average incidence of mental illness. Are we to conclude that creativity thrives on depression and anxiety rather than on well-being? Clearly not, and a more nuanced perspective on creativity is therefore required.
In the case of the artists, it is simply unclear whether their creative energy is fed by, or feeds into their poor mental health – most likely both of the above. In any case, these examples are not characteristic of organisational contexts. For one thing, artists often practice creativity individually rather than collectively. The discomfort of creativity may well be more bearable when it is experienced and entertained with others within a supportive and structured environment. Another dimension on which the mad genius differs from the organisational innovator is the very nature and breadth of creative output. Whereas artists often demonstrate what researchers characterize as the “big C” creativity of true geniuses, masterpieces that are far beyond the mundane creative acts of the average human being, most corporate innovators function within the “little c” creative space.
The Need for More Multi-Dimensional Perspectives on Creativity
Recently, a collective of academics from a wide range of disciplines have come together to issue a “Socio-Cultural Manifesto”, looking to construct a systemic perspective on creativity encompassing its social, psychological and material dimensions. Among the psychological aspects of creativity, researchers have pointed to the significance of motivational and affective factors. For instance, intrinsic motivation (one’s own drive to achieve a task) is shown to favour creative outcomes, while extrinsic motivation (an imposed pressure) is detrimental.
In the same way, perceived personal freedom appears to be correlated to creativity. When dealing with external pressure and perceived lack of freedom, individuals report that they are less able to focus on finding creative solutions. On the other hand, creativity is not about lack of rigour, research suggests that it benefits from internal discipline and some level of effort. These different motivational and affective factors of creativity in all their complexity can, in turn, be linked to specific elements of well-being, including positive emotion, meaning and accomplishment, suggesting that well-being works as an antecedent of creativity.
One particularly illuminating body of research on the joint topic of creativity and well-being is the work on flow. We owe much of this outstanding work to the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first identified and documented the phenomenon. Having experienced tremendous suffering as a prisoner during World War II, Csikszentmihalyi became interested in understanding the human mind. Upon reading the work of Carl Jung he resolved to study psychology, an endeavour which took him to the United States where he became a most prominent and respected scholar. It would be hard to accuse such a man of entertaining simplistic notions of well-being and happiness.
Creativity within ‘The Zone’
Some have likened the feeling of being in a state of flow as being “in the zone”. Remember last time you lost track of time while concentrating on an interesting task? Chances are you were experiencing flow. Indeed, the state of flow is characterised by concentration, clear goals and rewards, loss of sense of time, intrinsic reward, a feeling of ease, a good balance between challenge and skills; and between action and awareness, and a general sense of being in control of the task at hand. Physiologically, flow has been demonstrated to be associated with a marked decrease in the activity of the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with high-level cognition. Interestingly, while flow shares some features with well-being, at least in the literature, it is not a state of mindless bliss.
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing time. The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990)
In other words, not only does creativity benefit from well-being, but it may also promote it by challenging us to accomplish more and to do better.
On the social side of things, both creativity and flow benefit from individuals coming together to collaborate with a shared purpose and with awareness of their interdependence. A fascinating study by Hutchins relates the frantic efforts of the crew of a US Navy helicopter-carrying ship entering the tricky waters of San Diego harbour having lost its propulsion system and, eventually, its rudder, putting the ship and the survival of its crew at risk as it careened out of control towards the harbour. The episode is an intricate blow-by-blow case study of how a high-functioning team comes together in a moment of collective and collaborative creativity under unthinkable duress. The six-man pilothouse crew work as one to improvise a creative solution and get a geographical fix by dividing up the task of performing many highly sophisticated calculations manually in record time. Hutchins argues that it is the collective mind that creatively discovers and implements the solution before any of the individual crewmen. Group flow, as it is demonstrated in this case study, is as powerful as it is effective in delivering creative results and performance.
As leaders, following Csikszentmihalyi’s encouragement to accomplish something worthwhile requires that we draw on the improvisational nature of individual and group flow and creativity. A deliberate move towards enabling flow and empowering individuals and creativity requires clear purpose, empathetic conversations, enabling problem ownership, equal distribution of skills and tasks, and the acceptance of failure. Make no mistake, these are not easy fixes. Far from avoiding discomfort, this strategic posture towards flow and creativity requires taking painful leaps of faith. It is this faith in the creative potential of the human, the social and the collective that, we propose, eventually reconciles creativity and well-being.
Feature photo credit: Rawpixel – stock.adobe.com.