Culture and Creativity: Is It All About Social Context?

Topic(s): creativity, culture
Publication: Journal of Organizational Behavior
Article: Social context: Key to understanding culture’s effects on creativity
Authors: Nouri, R., Erez, M., Lee, C., Liang, J., Bannister, B. D., & Chiu, W.
Reviewed by: Angela A. Beiler

In recent years, workplace creativity has become an area of interest to many employers.

With the increase in globalization within organizations, understanding employee creativity also requires an understanding of how and when individuals within various cultures exhibit this characteristic.

In a new study, researchers found that the manifestation of creativity differs between Eastern and Western cultures, which could be due to a number of cultural differences.

THE IMPACT OF POWER DISTANCE & COLLECTIVISM

Two main differences between Eastern and Western cultures are power distance and collectivism.

Eastern cultures, such as China, tend to have higher levels of power distance, which is characterized by differential treatment based on social status. This could inhibit employees’ willingness to take risks if they do not feel comfortable divulging their original creative ideas to a supervisor.

Western cultures, such as the United States, tend to have much lower levels of power distance. Because the culture typically has higher levels of equality regardless of social status, employees may not be as negatively influenced by the presence of a supervisor.

Additionally, East Asian societies are traditionally more collaborative, which may encourage creativity within a group. Whereas the Western focus on independence may lower creativity when employees operate within group scenarios.

 

EAST VS. WEST: A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

To examine these cultural differences, the researchers conducted simultaneous studies in the United States and China.

Seventy-nine undergraduate students were asked to take part in a creativity task– either alone, in a group, or with a supervisor present. Responses were rated for creative output via originality, total number of ideas, and usefulness. The researchers then compared results for the two groups.

The results indicated that Chinese participants provided less original ideas while supervised, whereas American participants were not impacted by supervisor presence. Conversely, the American participants provided fewer ideas when in groups than they did when they were alone, while the Chinese participants were not impacted by the presence of peers.

 

BIG PICTURE TAKEAWAYS

This study highlights the importance of understanding social contexts within a diverse workplace, and how desired outcomes like creativity may be impacted by cultural differences.

While Chinese workers may benefit from a supervisor-free group environment when completing creative tasks, American workers may perform best when taking on these tasks individually.

The conclusion is that employers may not be able to simply take a one-size-fits-all approach to improving conditions for creativity in the workplace, especially if they have employees with diverse backgrounds or act as a multinational organization.