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Creativity is Not Common Sense

Surprising connections between personality and creative performance

After gaining acceptance to graduate school, I eagerly phoned my grandmother with the news. Upon hearing that I would be studying Psychology, she replied “Psychology? How can you get a PhD in that? It’s just common sense.” My nana’s declaration highlights a key hurdle to understanding and applying psychology in the real world. We make assumptions that seem intuitive to us, but how much do we really know?

Consider the elusive phenomenon of creativity. As mentioned on this site previously, there tends to be an art bias in creativity. In other words, we tend to associate exclusively artistic jobs with creativity (e.g., painter, musician) while failing to consider how creative thinking may be needed for more mundane-seeming jobs (e.g., accountant). In fact, creativity is required for about 70% of occupations – it just may not take a form that is obvious to someone outside that field. The question becomes: How can we understand and foster different kinds of creativity in different organizations?

The specific personality traits that facilitate job performance vary depending on the work that needs to be done. Similarly, different aspects of our personality aid our creative performance, depending on the context of our creative work. For example, correlations with the “Big Five” personality traits and creativity are different between scientists and artists.In fact, two traits are very different between these groups: Openness and Conscientiousness.

Highly open people are curious, novelty-seeking, imaginative and have broad interests. Openness is generally so related to how we typically think of creativity that some researchers have even argued the two ideas are basically the same thing. Thus, it seems like this quality would be positively related to creativity, right? Well, there’s a caveat. Compared to their less open peers, highly open people are highly sensitive to feedback in performing their work. If given negative feedback or overly structured tasks, open people may not make the best use of their resourcefulness. Essentially, the link between openness and creativity isn’t a given. In this case it can be fostered with positive feedback and allowing open employees to “job craft,” providing less direction and structure in their work.

Highly conscientious employees, on the other hand, appear to approach creative tasks somewhat differently. Conscientious individuals are typically systematic, cautious, and dependable at work. On the face of it, it may seem like conscientiousness doesn't lend itself to creative performance. However, the context of creative work matters. Compared to others, highly conscientious people prefer less monitoring and more communication when performing their work. The bottom line: individuals' personality, how they approach their work, and other situational factors all influence the emergence of creativity.

The complexity underlying creativity suggests it manifests differently in different individuals and the contexts within which they are working. Nonetheless, some general rules to foster creativity include:

  • Communicate that your organization values creativity

  • Give employees freedom and autonomy to job craft their work

  • Consider the unique demands of different creative jobs, and precisely what creative outcomes are desired

  • Avoid making assumptions about individual employees’ work styles or motivations; work to understand what each team member needs to thrive in their work

  • Match employees’ work styles to the kind of feedback they receive, and the structure of the tasks they encounter

Challenging our assumptions about how phenomena like creativity emerge is a great starting point for understanding organizational outcomes. While there aren’t always hard-and-fast rules, employers can benefit from understanding how things like personality and situational factors interplay and take steps to make things like creativity more likely. In challenging our assumptions about we think we know; we can begin to make changes to organizations to gain competitive advantage.


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