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Looking to Hire the Most Creative Employees? Find the Candidates Who Lived Abroad

Cartoon Character by Tourist Republic

Tourist Republic


Cartoon Character by Tourist Republic

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Businesses battle to hire creative, productive employees. Management gurus have been happy to indulge that trend, offering all manner of “creativity courses.” What if you could easily screen for greater creativity, during the hiring process? A new study, published by the American Psychological Association, offers a method. Looking at those who’ve lived in one country all their life, versus those who’ve lived abroad for spell, they found that the one-time expats were far more creative as a group. If you’re looking for a creative employee, the best question you might ask could be: Have you lived abroad?

The study was led by William Maddux, a professor at the famed business school INSEAD, and Adam Galinsky, at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. They performed two tests with MBA students, and both showed that the longer the student lived abroad, the more likely they were to solve the problem.

Dunker candle problem

One test was the so-called Duncker candle problem. Subjects are posed with three objects, sitting on a table next to a cardboard wall: A candle, a box of matches, and a box of tacks. From those, they had to make a candle holder that wouldn’t drip wax. Most people fumble with the tacks and the candle–but the correct solution is to empty the box of tacks, attach it on the wall, and make an ad-hoc sconce. The problem has been considered a classic test of creativity because it requires seeing objects as being useful in ways never intended.

Those that lived abroad for longer solved the problems the fastest–but that same effect wasn’t found among those who had simply traveled abroad. And lest you think that there was self-selection at work–that more creative types are more likely to live abroad–the authors took their experiments a step further. They found that creativity increased when students merely “primed” themselves by recalling time spent adapting to a new culture. Maddux and Galinsky hypothesize that living abroad and adapting to cross-cultural challenges flexes your mind in ways that can be readily applied to other real-world situations.

[Via Eureka Alert; image by Peter Becker]

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About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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