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Report: We Are More Creative When We Help Others, Not Ourselves

There is an interesting set of findings from psychological experiments that suggest we see others’ flaws and strengths more clearly than our own.

There is an interesting set of findings from psychological experiments that suggest we see others’ flaws and strengths more clearly than our own (I wrote about this in Good Boss, Bad Boss) and that, on average, human-beings make more rational decisions when make them for others rather than themselves. As Jeff Pfeffer and I advised in Hard Facts:

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See Yourself and Your Organization as Outsiders Do

A big impediment to evidence-based management is that human beings, especially those with good mental health, often have inflated views of their own talents and prospects for success. This rampant optimism is a double-edged sword. The upside is that it creates positive self-fulfilling prophecies, which increase the odds of success. The downside is that excessive optimism causes people to downplay or not see risks, and to persist despite clear evidence they are traveling down the wrong path. One study found, for example, that over 80 percent of entrepreneurs surveyed estimated that chances were over 70 percent that their venture would succeed, and over 30 percent believed that their firm was certain to succeed — even though only about 35 percent of new businesses survive their first five years. Max Bazerman’s book on managerial decision making shows that outsiders often make more objective judgments than insiders do — so having a blunt friend, mentor, or counselor can help you see and act on better evidence. This is one reason why Kathleen Eisenhardt’s study of successful versus unsuccessful Silicon Valley start-ups found that in companies that survived and thrived, the CEO usually had a trusted counselor on the team — while CEOs of unsuccessful firms usually did not. These counselors were typically ten to twenty years older than the CEO, with broad industry experience, and were most valuable for helping CEOs recognize when they were traveling down the wrong path and a shift in strategic direction was needed.

This finding that it is better to rely on others than ourselves is also seen in a new study described at one of my favorite blogs, BPS research. Here is the summary at BPS:

Across four studies involving hundreds of undergrads, Polman and Emich found that participants drew more original aliens for a story to be written by someone else than for a story they were to write themselves; that participants thought of more original gift ideas for an unknown student completely unrelated to themselves, as opposed to one who they were told shared their same birth month; and that participants were more likely to solve an escape-from-tower problem if they imagined someone else trapped in the tower, rather than themselves (a 66 vs. 48 per cent success rate). Briefly, the tower problem requires you to explain how a prisoner escaped the tower by cutting a rope that was only half as long as the tower was high. The solution is that he divided the rope lengthwise into two thinner strips and then tied them together.

For the complete description, go here. The implication of these diverse studies are quite instructive. If we want to make better decisions, make faster decisions, have a more realistic picture of our strengths and weaknesses, and now, apparently, be more creative, we need to ask others for their opinions and assistance. There is even a kind of weird implication that rather than working on our own problems, we should always be working on others. So, despite the cynicism about consultants, they actually do serve a moreimportant role than many of us have recognized. Certainly, this research suggests the importance of having mentors and colleagues who will give you help, advise you on decisions, and point out the flaws in your beliefs and actions– and that the world would be a better place if we did so in turn for others. Another cool implication is that consultants need outside advisors when it comes to tackling their own challenges and problems. In any event, these studies certainly provide interesting evidence of how much humans we need one another.

The citation for the creativity research is:

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Polman E, and Emich KJ (2011). Decisions for Others Are More Creative Than Decisions for the Self. Personality and social psychology bulletin

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

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About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility

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