The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Workplace mantra: Encourage differences

New York, July 19 (Reuters): Emphasising teamwork may be popular in workplaces across the US, but a new study says companies that focus more on individual achievement produce more innovative ideas.

The findings may support the view that creative companies need to encourage differences rather than build teamwork, which leads to conformity, said Barry Staw, professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and co-author of the study.

“The more you emphasise collectivity and team membership and orientation, the lower is the creativity,” Staw said. “So much of creativity is being different, being willing to deviate and take chances and be the odd person out.”

US workplaces have moved toward teamwork and away from individualism for decades, originally having borrowed techniques from Japanese business models, experts say.

Staw and co-author Jack Goncalo of Cornell University, whose study Individualism-Collectivism and Group Creativity, was published in the most recent issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, conducted experiments with teams of college students.

The students were asked to think as individuals or collectively as they devised new business uses for a hypothetical space left vacant by a mismanaged restaurant.

Individualist groups generated more ideas, 37 on average, than collective groups, which had an average of 26 ideas, the study said. Ideas from individual-oriented groups were more creative than those by collective groups.

Even at companies that don’t consciously emphasise teamwork, forces build conformity, Staw said. New hires tend to be people who fit in, co-workers grow to think alike and people who don't fit leave, he said.

“If you want innovation, you have to seek out the person who is different and the person who is not like everyone else,” said Staw.

“There will be costs,” he added. “You may have to tolerate people who are kind of jerks. Some of the most innovative people can be people who don’t get along very well in social situations and may be people you don’t want to spend a lot of time with.”

The findings fit the view that creative companies need to give creative people autonomy, said John Challenger of Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. workplace consultants.

“If you are in a lab or you’re a newspaper reporter or a creative advertising person, you really want more freedom and independence because you want to generate great ideas,” he said.

“But not every place needs hundreds of new ideas. At a lot of places, it’s more important that everyone co-ordinates and is on the same page and knows what each other is doing and aren’t left out of the loop,” Challenger said.

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