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What Makes Women Wildly Less Creative at Work

A commonly used management tactic may have some unintended consequences, suggests a new study.
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More diversity, including more gender diversity, makes for more innovation. Have the same type of people sitting around the table and you'll get the same old ideas. If you want creativity, you need different perspectives knocking together and throwing off sparks.

There's no news there. Nor would it probably surprise you to learn that lots of companies also try to foster creativity through a little healthy competition--pitting teams against one another to see who comes up with the best idea.

Destroying the Advantages of Diversity

What's less well known is what happens when you combine these two approaches. According to a new study out of Washington University in St. Louis, if you mix gender-diverse teams and inter-team rivalry, the result is more of a fizzle than a bang.

When business professor Markus Baer looked at how increasing inter-team competition affects creativity, he found a distinct difference between the sexes. Facing off against colleagues does good things for men's creativity, boosting their output of ideas. Subject women to the same situation, however, and their level of creativity dips drastically.

"If teams work side by side, women tend to perform better and even outperform men--they're more creative," Baer commented. "As soon as you add the element of competition, though, the picture changes. Men under those circumstances gel together. They become more interdependent and more collaborative, and women just do the opposite."

The effect only increased the more high pressure the competition and the more women present on a team. "Women contributed less and less to the team's creative output when the competition between teams became cutthroat, and this falloff was most pronounced in teams composed entirely of women," Baer said.

The Reason

That's not because of any inherent gender differences, Baer feels, but more likely attributable to how women are typically socialized. "It's not that women stink at competing. It's that the way society views women and the way we view competition, gender specific, has an impact and that impact is observable in the lab as well as in the field. It changes behaviors and outcomes," he noted.

The Recommendation

What to do with this finding is pretty obvious. Managers should be mindful of the likely effect on competitive environments on women team members and weigh carefully whether they're the best method for spurring innovative thinking.

"Given that women represent a growing portion of the workforce, using competition as a means to enhance the creativity of groups, regardless of how they are composed, implies that the creative potential available to businesses is seldom fully realized," Baer concludes. So to put it baldly, if you're pitting your mixed-gender teams against one another, you're probably missing out on plenty of good ideas.

Have you observed this tendency of women to be less creative on competitive teams yourself?

Last updated: Aug 20, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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