• 20 Sep 2006
  • Research & Ideas

The Power of Ordinary Practices

Seemingly mundane things that managers do can have great impact on their workers, says Professor Teresa Amabile. In this conversation with Professor Mike Roberts, she updates her ongoing research on creativity in the workplace by investigating how people's intense inner work lives affect their productivity—and how managers can encourage production. Key concepts include:
  • Emotions, motivations, and perceptions about work permeate an employee's daily experience and affect performance.
  • There are five specific leader behaviors that create a positive influence on people's feelings, and three that have a negative impact.
  • Leaders must understand how ordinary, seemingly mundane things they do or say carry great influence on workers—so "sweat the small stuff."
by Michael Roberts

Teresa M. Amabile's research centers on how the work environment can influence the motivation, creativity, and performance of individuals and teams. A recent study focused on the influence of team leaders on these factors. Professor Amabile and New Business publisher Mike Roberts recently discussed her research.

New Business: Teresa, tell us about the general context of your research.

Teresa Amabile: With all the focus entrepreneurs and business executives place on strategy, they can lose sight of the people "in the trenches" who actually have to implement the strategy—the knowledge workers who are carrying out the work of the organization. In my research we look at how entrepreneurs and executives can think about the day-by-day management of those people in the trenches, since they determine, to a large extent, whether the strategy is going to work.

I believe that a focus on creativity is absolutely essential for current business success. I define creativity as producing novel, workable ideas and solutions to problems; innovation is implementing those ideas within an organizational context. You need novel and useful ideas at all stages of a process, from early idea generation up through successful implementation. I maintain that creativity is possible and desirable in all forms of work, no matter what people are doing. In particular, knowledge workers require creativity.

NB: Are there any popular misperceptions about creativity that you've identified?

Amabile: There are two myths in defining creativity. One is the genius myth—that creativity is tied to genius. To the contrary, I've found that although some people have extreme levels of talent, everyone with normal human capacities is capable of producing creative work under the right circumstances. The second is the trade-off myth. I have found over and over again that, for complex work in organizations, there is no trade-off between creativity and productivity, efficiency, or work quality.

NB: How does your research explore the factors that influence team creativity and performance?

Amabile: I had top management in seven companies identify teams working full-time on projects that demanded creativity. We ended up studying 238 professionals in 26 project teams in 7 companies in 3 different industries. They were highly educated—a vast majority with college degrees. Each team had a leader who worked directly on the project with the team. We collected daily diaries in order to understand everyone's day-by-day subjective experiences. We analyzed the connection between the daily events that people reported, their reactions to those events, and the effect of those reactions on their performance, including their creativity as a central aspect of performance.

NB: What did you find?

Amabile: There are three main points in the big picture. One, people have incredibly rich, intense, daily inner work lives; emotions, motivations, and perceptions about their work environment permeate their daily experience at work. Second, these feelings powerfully affect people's day-to-day performance. And third, those feelings, which are so important for performance, are powerfully influenced by particular daily events.

My guess is that a lot of leaders have very little sense of the impact that they have.

An example of the influence of these feelings on performance is my finding that if people are in a good mood on a given day, they're more likely to have creative ideas that day, as well as the next day, even if we take into account their mood that next day. There seems to be a cognitive process that gets set up when people are feeling good that leads to more flexible, fluent, and original thinking, and there's actually a carryover, an incubation effect, to the next day.

NB: How do the leaders, the managers, affect this?

Amabile: The team leader's behavior is critical. I found that there are five leader behaviors that have a positive influence on people's feelings, and the daily diary method allowed us to identify these behaviors at a very granular level. One of these is supporting people emotionally. The second is monitoring people's work in a particularly positive way, and that has to do with giving them positive feedback on their work or giving them information that they need to do their work better. The third behavior is just plain recognizing people for good performance, particularly in public settings. The fourth is consulting with people on the team—that is, asking for their views, respecting their opinions, and acting on their needs and their wishes to the extent that it's possible. And the fifth category was a grab bag of things. But the most important aspect here was collaborating—that the team leader rolled up his or her sleeves and actually spent time collaborating with somebody on the work.

NB: And the negative behaviors?

Amabile: We found three leader behaviors that had negative impact. One was the under- or overspecification of assignments. Much of this has to do with giving people either too little guidance or too much guidance by overconstraining the assignment. The second one is monitoring in a negative form—that is, checking on assigned work too often or not often enough. Or, checking on it for too long, like hanging around and going too much into the details of what people are doing, and giving unconstructive feedback. The third negative has to do with problem solving—either avoiding solving problems that crop up in the team or the project, or creating problems.

NB: What is a vital lesson that leaders can take away from this?

Amabile: I believe it's important for leaders to understand the power of ordinary practices. Seemingly ordinary, trivial, mundane, day-by-day things that leaders do and say can have an enormous impact. My guess is that a lot of leaders have very little sense of the impact that they have. That's particularly true of the negative behaviors. I don't think that the ineffective team leaders we studied meant to anger or deflate the people who were working for them. They were trying to do a good job of leading their teams, but lacked an effective model for how to behave.

So, I would say sweat the small stuff, not only when you're dealing with your business strategy, but with the people whom you're trying to lead. I would encourage leaders, when they're about to have an interaction with somebody, to ask themselves: Might this thing I'm about to do or say become this person's "event of the day"? Will it have a positive or a negative effect on their feelings and on their performance today?

About the Author

Michael J. Roberts is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.