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‘Lone wolves’ seen as more creative, ILR research finds

Workers who signal their independence from other people are judged to have more creative potential than those who seem more socially connected, according to a new study from researchers in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

The paper, “How Perceived Social Connectedness Influences Judgments of Creative Potential,” was published in July in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Co-authors are Devon Proudfoot, assistant professor of human resource studies, and Sean Fath, assistant professor of organizational behavior.

“[B]eing recognized as someone who is highly creative brings valuable opportunities and rewards,” they wrote. “Creativity is prized in today’s knowledge economy, with U.S. employers citing creative thinking as one of the abilities they need most in their employees. Given the premium placed on creativity, communicating one’s ability to think creatively is likely to be advantageous.”

Proudfoot and Fath ran a series of five experiments to gauge how a person’s connectedness to others may influence judgments about that person’s likelihood of generating creative ideas.

Across studies, they examined whether different behavioral cues signaling that a person was more connected or less connected to others influenced judgments of their creative potential. In one experiment, they found that eating lunch alone rather than with others boosted evaluations of a person’s creative potential. In another, they found that job interviewees who emphasized leisure activities they engaged in alone were seen as having more creative potential compared to those who emphasized group activities.

The researchers also found that the tendency to associate separateness with creative potential wasn’t simply about assuming that loners have more time to spend on generating creative ideas, or aren’t “normal” compared to more socially connected people.

“What our studies demonstrate,” Proudfoot said, “is when evaluating another person’s creative potential, people tend to look for signals that the person is somewhat isolated from the influence of others – this seems to convey that the person is more likely to come up with truly novel ideas.”

Much of the existing research in this area, Proudfoot said, contends that social connectedness will often enhance a person’s creativity rather than hinder it.

“As such,” she said, “one key takeaway from our findings is potential misalignment between common beliefs about what makes workers creative and the actual factors that facilitate creativity. This illuminates potential challenges in how individuals and groups go about deciding who should be given creative tasks and how creative work should be completed.

“Another key takeaway is that while social connections are generally beneficial at work,” she said, “if you want to be seen as a creative thinker or have your creative ideas noticed, you may want to emphasize your independent side, rather than your social side.”

This research was supported by funding from Cornell, the ILR School and the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University.

Julie Greco is a communications specialist with the ILR School.

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