Release Date: January 27, 2021
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Studies have long shown that, on average, women lag behind men in creative performance, despite having the same skills and abilities. Now, as companies race to innovate, new research from the University at Buffalo School of Management uncovers why this occurs—and what organizations can do to level the playing field.
“Creativity is crucial for success in business today,” says Snehal Hora, a UB School of Management doctoral researcher and lead author on the study, which appeared online this month ahead of publication in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. “Creative thinking is how we develop novel solutions, grow companies and move the world forward. When organizations do not tap the full creative potential of every employee, they are at a competitive disadvantage and hurt the bottom line.”
By definition, creativity means thinking outside the box and challenging the status quo—behaviors that contradict long-held gender stereotypes of women as harmonious and agreeable, and align with stereotypes of men as ambitious and independent. The researchers hypothesized that needing to violate these norms in order to be creative diminishes women’s self-confidence in their capabilities and, in turn, hurts their performance.
“Men tend to believe in their abilities regardless of the situation, while women are more likely to judge their potential success based on their environment,” says James Lemoine, PhD, study co-author and assistant professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management. “Logically, then, if an organization has a culture that encourages employees to speak up and take risks, women will feel safer presenting new ideas.”
The researchers studied 335 employees at a large food manufacturer in departments where creativity was functionally possible, such as sales, marketing, training, and research and development. Through surveys, they assessed employees’ psychological safety, or how free they felt taking chances and voicing ideas without fear of backlash or negative consequences. In addition, they asked managers to rate employees on creative performance.
They discovered that women, on average, felt less confident than men in their creative abilities, which hindered performance. However, in departments with a high degree of psychological safety, female employees’ self-confidence increased to equal their male counterparts, improving performance as well.
“For women, this can become a vicious cycle; when low self-confidence leads to poor performance, it may cause her confidence—and professional opportunities—to suffer further,” Hora says. “To support and get the most out of all employees, organizational and team leaders need to make a deliberate effort to foster a safe and open culture.”
To build such a culture, Hora recommends leaders institute an “open door” policy, where they explicitly invite feedback, admit mistakes, develop trust among team members, clearly communicate goals and expectations, and give employees autonomy when possible.
Hora and Lemoine co-authored the study with UB School of Management alumna Ning Xu, PhD ’18, postdoctoral research scholar in organizational behavior, Washington University in Saint Louis, and Christina Shalley, PhD, Sharon M. and Matthew R. Price Chair and professor of organizational behavior at the Georgia Institute of Technology Scheller College of Business.