Igniting the spark of creativity at work

New research investigates how co-workers can inspire each other, like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

Sherlock Holmes sitting in a rocking chair with his pipe and reading a book.

Release Date: June 27, 2022

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“Organizations looking to boost creativity should facilitate these relationships, particularly across departments. One great way to do that is by placing highly creative employees on more cross-functional teams. ”
University at Buffalo School of Management

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Much like how the fictional Sherlock Holmes often found crime-solving inspiration from his partner Dr. John Watson, new University at Buffalo School of Management research shows how real-life co-workers can trigger creativity, too.  

Published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, the research investigates how to identify and encourage creative catalysts—those employees who inspire creativity in their colleagues—and if there’s such a thing as too much creative support.

They found that employees with strong personal ties and friends in common are the best creative catalysts, because they share norms and language that ease the transfer of knowledge. That’s counter to other research that has concluded people are more creative when they interact with people they have weak relationships with—those who might bring new information or a different perspective. 

“Co-workers with close personal relationships and similar groups of friends can provide significant boosts to each other’s creativity,” says James Lemoine, PhD, associate professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management. “Organizations looking to boost creativity should facilitate these relationships, particularly across departments. One great way to do that is by placing highly creative employees on more cross-functional teams.”

The researchers analyzed creativity catalysts in two architecture companies based in Turkey. They examined the relationships between employees who are expected to be creative at work, surveyed 127 of the employees on creativity, and asked supervisors to evaluate the creative performance of their staff.

Their findings reveal that managers can help employees become creative catalysts by developing a culture where all employees feel part of each other’s creative process—but they warn not to overdo it. The research found that once a staff member gets more than five people supporting them, that’s where the drop-off occurs.

“If you overload your employees with creative inspiration, it can actually be detrimental because it leads to too much information, too many perspectives and too much distraction,” Lemoine says. “It’s important to provide time and space where employees can work individually and focus on their own creative process, too.” 

Lemoine collaborated on the study with lead author Gamze Koseoglu, PhD, senior lecturer in management at the University of Melbourne; and Christina Shalley, PhD, professor of organizational behavior and human resource management in the Georgia Institute of Technology Scheller College of Business.

The UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit management.buffalo.edu.

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