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Do Fun Office Perks Actually Make Workers Less Creative?

Topics: Work Culture

Flashy office perks like ping-pong tables, free backrubs, and unlimited snack foods might help keep you in the office, but do they make you better at your job? Not necessarily. If you’re wondering why your creative work environment isn’t sparking more innovation, those fancy perks could be to blame. Here’s how your cool office could be killing your creativity.

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(Photo Credit: schrierc/Flickr)

1. There could be something to the idea of needing to “suffer for your art.”

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There is this commonly held idea about creativity and how it often comes from suffering. We’ve all heard of the tortured artists whose genius sprang from a vast well of despair and misery (Van Gogh, Beethoven, and Plath, to name a few). But, does suffering really make people more creative? Some research suggests that it actually might.

In a study of 67 helicopter manufacturing workers done by Jing Zhou, PhD, and Jennifer M. George, PhD, both of Rice University, researchers found a link between negative moods and creativity. Workers who reported feeling negative emotions, such as unhappiness or anxiety, tended to also be more creative. There was an even greater connection for workers with “high clarity of feeling,” in other words, people who were a little extra aware of their emotions. These workers experienced an even greater boost to their creativity as a result of their negative moods.

2. Then again, others have found just the opposite to be true.

On the other hand, some researchers do report a connection between happiness and creativity, but the timing is a little different that you might think. Teresa Amabile, a professor from Harvard Business School, found that a burst of creativity often follows a feeling of happiness, but not until the next day.

“The entries show that people are happiest when they come up with a creative idea, but they’re more likely to have a breakthrough if they were happy the day before,” Amabile said. “There’s a kind of virtuous cycle. When people are excited about their work, there’s a better chance that they’ll make a cognitive association that incubates overnight and shows up as a creative idea the next day. One day’s happiness often predicts the next day’s creativity.”

So, maybe being happy does help us be more creative, it’s just that it takes a while for that benefit to show up and pan out.

3. Creative co-workers plus a boss who leaves you alone could be the real keys to creativity.

In another study done by Zhou, he found that creative co-workers had an impact on each other’s levels of creativity (like so many emotions, creativity might be contagious) but only when managers kept their distance and gave their employees a good deal of autonomy. Pressure from a micromanaging boss was determined to be the greatest creativity crusher, whereas a creative team fueled and propelled one another’s innovative process. Autonomy might be a prerequisite for workplace innovation. Furthermore, creative people might make the best co-workers; they’ll fuel one another’s creative energy and process.

Maybe creativity isn’t about happiness or lack thereof; maybe it’s about surrounding ourselves with creative people, and not letting pressure (or a looming manager) interfere with our process.

4. So, what about those cool office perks – do they impact creativity?

A recent op-ed by Eric Weiner in the Los Angeles Times explored how the trendy office perks making their way into more and more workplaces these days are impacting workers’ creativity. Employees certainly enjoy these perks, and their introduction into the workspace is well-intentioned. But, do they drive creativity and innovation?

Nap-zones and pet care might help to attract and retain workers, but Weiner argues they probably don’t make them more creative. He feels that new ideas often spring up when people have something to “push against” some discomfort that makes them crave something different.

“The problem with the bean bag chair and all it represents is that it is too soft and mushy,” wrote Weiner. “It provides us nothing to push against, and that is when we are at our most creative. Similarly, the problem with the ‘creative class’ theory is that it confuses cause and effect. Sushi restaurants, experimental theater and the like are the products of a creative environment, not the generators of one.”

Weiner’s opinion is just that, but he might have a point. If managers wish to inspire their employees toward increased innovation, maybe they’d would be better off hiring creative people and then staying out of their way, rather than hovering over them and promising cushy perks.

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Good stuff to know for the people at my office. I work at, and the relationships of all the workers are nooooot the best.

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