Territorial Marking Can Impact Workplace Creativity

Workplace creativity is undeniably important, yet still fairly elusive. Organizational leaders are still learning how to best identify and hire creative people and how to best inspire creativity among people already on the job. New research (Brown & Baer, 2015) focuses on the role of “territorial marking” in influencing the creative process. No, this has nothing to do with the behavior of wild animals. Territorial marking (or more specifically, control-oriented marking) means that people “mark” things that they own, in order to make sure that others don’t try to claim them for themselves. There are many ways that this is done. People put name labels on staplers, personal photos on desks, or write names on bologna sandwiches in the office refrigerator.

TERRITORIAL MARKING AND CREATIVE FEEDBACK

In this study, the authors considered people who use territorial marking to claim ideas as their own. If I think of a novel idea, I might only communicate it to others after saying, “this is my idea.” This warns others that the idea is already “owned” and only I can receive credit for it. While this sounds like a good idea, the authors predicted that negative outcomes could occur, specifically in the ability to receive creative feedback about an idea.

The authors say that creativity is increasingly viewed as emanating from the give-and-take associated with collaboration, and not an epiphany that happens to a single person. This means that a novel idea needs to be shared with others to get feedback, which is then incorporated into the idea. If feedback is not received, or if poor quality feedback is received, the novel idea stagnates and does not reach its potential. That’s where territorial marking comes in. If I only offer an idea to colleagues after saying, “this is my idea,” how will that affect the feedback that my colleagues give me?

RESULTS OF THE STUDY

The results of two research studies show that when an idea is shared with territorial marking, the listener provides less novel or creative feedback in response, thus inhibiting the creative process. The study revealed that listeners do this because they perceive a lack of control or responsibility over the eventual outcome, so they lose motivation to participate in improving the idea. However, this only happens to listeners who have an “independent self-construal,” which means they primarily see themselves as different from others and work to highlight those differences. The opportunity to provide feedback about an “owned” idea is simply not that interesting to them.

On the other hand, people with an “interdependent self-construal” see themselves as attached to others and try to highlight characteristics that they have in common with others. These people actually gave better creative feedback when an idea was marked as “owned.” In this case, they knew that the “owner” was taking responsibility for the idea, and there was little chance of harmfully hijacking or influencing the end results, especially in ways upsetting to the owner. These considerations are important for people who feel very connected to others.

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study shows that the territorial marking of ideas has important implications on the collaborative creative process. Ideas that are presented as “owned” receive worse creative feedback from people who see themselves as more independent, and better creative feedback from those who see themselves as more connected to others.  Organizations and leaders can consider these findings when trying to best foster collaborative creativity. An environment that encourages territorial ownership can have negative consequences if the people who work in it view themselves as primarily independent. Conversely, lack of ownership can be harmful for employees with a more collectivist orientation. Is your organization territorial? Are the employees more individualistic or collectivist? These are questions you may want to answer. Be sure to claim the answers as your own…or don’t.