The battle between collaboration and credit in the workplace is an awkward one. On one hand, companies are well aware that there’s wisdom in crowds—with the ubiquitous open office plan, meant to facilitate worker interaction, as the unfortunate testament to this realization. On the other hand, employees are well aware that if they don’t get personal credit for an assignment, it becomes harder to gain distance from the corporate pack.
There may be no easy solution to the credit-collaboration dilemma, but some new research helps explain when to expect it. Business scholars Graham Brown of the University of Victoria in Canada and Markus Baer of Washington University in St. Louis report that people do offer less creative advice on an assignment when they know they aren’t getting credit. But it’s people with an independent mindset whose feedback suffers most; those with a collaborative view actually get more helpful.
“These results enrich our understanding of the conditions under which feedback-seeking actually produces the intended results—the acquisition of creative input from others,” Brown and Baer conclude in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
As an initial measure of how credit impacts creative collaboration, the researchers told 230 test participants they were part of a team developing a new restaurant’s promotional strategy. Participants then got an email from a supposed team member (in fact, it was from the researchers) with a draft proposal. The email asked the participant to review the proposal and provide comments or suggestions within the next 30 minutes.
For some test participants, these were the only instructions received. But others got a slightly different email. For this group, the subject line read “My proposal” (instead of “The proposal), and the note contained one additional line: “Just to be clear, although I am asking you for your input, I consider this to be my proposal, not yours.” In other words, their supposed team member was already taking credit for the proposal’s outcome.
That slight difference in approach had a measurable impact on collaboration. On average, participants in the group with the “territorial” team member produced ideas for the proposal judged as significantly less creative, especially with regards to novelty, than those in the group with the neutral partner. Participants on the territorial team also reported feeling significantly lower levels of intrinsic motivation—a trait closely tied to creative productivity.
“These findings are among the first to empirically demonstrate the dark side of territorial behavior in organizations,” write Brown and Baer.
The initial experiment was troubling for workplace collaboration, but in averaging creative feedback, the researchers had assumed all employees would respond the same to territoriality. Yet it’s easy to imagine that a very independent, original thinker would react to a territorial request differently from someone who’s much more team-oriented. With that in mind, the researchers ran the same scenario on a new crop of 88 test participants—with a slight twist.
This time, in addition to the two types of proposal emails (“The proposal” versus “My proposal”), the researchers manipulated the mindsets of the test participants. Some were put into an independent frame of mind; this was done by asking them to describe why they were different from others, and they it’s advantageous to “stand out” from the crowd. Others were put into a much more collaborative mentality; they were asked to explain why it helps to “blend in.”
Sure enough, Brown and Baer found that these two groups—which they labeled “independent” and “interdependent”—responded to the proposal situation in different ways. When the email did not claim credit in advance, the independent group gave more creative feedback. But when the email did mark a territory, the opposite occurred: now those with a collaborative mindset offered more creative advice, and independents held back.
In short, whether or not credit undermines collaboration depends on the mentality of the collaborator. Independent types—”those who otherwise may be the most valuable source of creative input,” write Brown and Baer—lose their motivation to help someone who has planted a flag on the issue at hand. Then again, marking territory may enhance the creativity of team players, as they need not worry that their remarks will be taken as an attempt at establishing control.
“Thus, organizations need to be mindful in balancing what is being valued—individual or collective achievements—with how people see themselves—as unique individuals first and foremost or as a part of a larger collective,” the researchers conclude. “Indeed, it is in this balance where true creativity seems to lie.”
The usual caveats apply when studying creativity: it’s extremely hard to define, and thus to measure. Also, these were mostly college-age test participants; feedback from real-world employees with actual jobs on the line might have been more forthcoming. And it’s quite possible that territoriality has some creative value of its own. In other words, maybe people who know they can take credit for something come up with a better idea in the first place.
If the findings hold up, however, the clearest lesson is that companies that consist of highly creative employees might benefit from minimizing desire to claim sole credit over a project. Just remember, when you take this idea of collectivity to the staff for consideration, that you didn’t think of it all by yourself.