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Creativity and empowerment: a complementary relationship.

Creativity and Empowerment: A Complementary Relationship


Contemporary organizational behaviorists are calling for an Organizational Renaissance [10]. Citing increased international competition and diminished national productivity, a variety of authors have described the needs of American industry in order to continue as an industrial leader. Interestingly, this recent catalog of organizational needs does not focus on technology, strategy, culture, or even leadership, but on individual contributions.

Although neither term has a unified definition, creativity and empowerment are similar and each describes the above contributions. Behaviorists are demanding that employees be empowered, that they be free to exercise choice. It is believed that this freedom of choice will facilitate expressions of commitment [22], courage [8], involvement [6], risk taking [10], and imagination [15]. On a more personal, individual level, these qualities are remarkably similar to the description of creative people. Creative persons are curious, self-confident, optimistic, flexible, visionary, and have a sense of humor [20]:

Creativity and Empowerment


Both creativity and empowerment have multiple definitions. Creativity is defined by both its manifestation and the impetus which energizes originality. Consequently, it is often defined in terms of its essence. Empowerment has such variation in its definitions that it is simply referred to as a heuristic. For this article, creativity will be defined as the act of bringing into existence something which did not exist before, and empowerment will be defined as an individual's belief in his/her ability to exercise choice.

Both creativity and empowerment have fanciful definitions; to some degree, they are the property of the philosopher and the idealist. Creativity, for example, is defined as the spark of the soul, joie de vivre, and one's claim to immortality. Empowerment, too, has idealistic advocates; it describes the maturation of the followers of Martin Luther King [12], the evolution of grassroots political action groups [14], and a philosophy of marginality in the women's movement [13]. For the individual, creativity is an expression of the soul; for the group, empowerment suggests dream fulfillment and the betterment of mankind.

However, they are also described very practically and have realistic applications. Creativity, for example, is a habit of work, persistence to achieve, and the mastery of a particular discipline. Practical empowerment has been associated with organizational structure [10], and systems [4], as well as managerial techniques [18].

The behavioral outcomes of these two phenomena are also similar. Creativity is manifested through innovation, entrepreneurship, inventive decision making, and original thinking [3,20]. Characteristics of empowerment are described as independence, awareness, risk taking, confidence, responsibility, and investment [12,18].

Creativity and empowerment are believed to result from comparable organizational factors. For example, creativity is enhanced by freedom of information and relaxation of conditioned thinking [17]; empowerment results from open communication and network building [10]. Access to decision making and control of resources are empowering [16]; providing resources and support and encouraging the solution of unstructured problems enhance creativity [20]. Low levels of supervision, participation in goal setting, and the establishment of challenging work goals foster creativity, while participation, expanded awareness, and being attuned to organizational goals empower individuals [20,7].

Finally, neither creativity nor empowerment is universally achievable. For example, personality factors are believed to exist which limit the individual's ability to accept self-control [1,5]. In a corollary fashion, many people believe that creative people innately march to the beat of a different drummer; therefore, creativity cannot be taught - you are either born creative or you are not [21]. Somewhat more empirically, Zaleznik has described unhealthy patterns of subordinacy which disallow empowerment [23], and research has demonstrated that creative persons are more open than ordinary people to experiencing new and different activities [3].

Creativity and empowerment are similar in many areas. They are described as individual expressions of independence, risk taking, confidence, and commitment which are the necessary components of an Organizational Renaissance. They are fostered by similar environmental characteristics; they are not universal phenomena; and they are both in short supply in the United States.

Modeling the Complex


We know a great deal about both creativity and empowerment, and we recognize the role each plays in organizational health. Nevertheless, attempts to empower and to develop creativity in organizations have not been very successful. The problem is that our knowledge is fragmented and disjointed, and the approaches which have been suggested are unidimensional, while the phenomena are complex and multidimensional.

It is tempting to make the relationship between them simplistic. Since the results of empowerment are so similar to the internal climate of the creative person, i.e., awareness, commitment, risk taking, self-confidence, it is enticing to say that creativity occurs only in empowered persons or that empowerment results in creativity. However, it is the attraction of that linear thinking which has contributed to our present faulty logic.

Empowerment has been defined as an individual's belief in his/her ability to exercise choice. This belief results from the reciprocal impact of the individual's cognitive style, environmental factors, and behavior as illustrated in Figure 1 on page 14 [19]. Creativity is the act of bringing into existence something which did not exist before. Therefore, creativity may also be said to be reciprocally influenced by a mind set which see possibilities, a perception that the environmental can be impacted, and behavior which produces new things. As empowerment cannot occur in a vacuum, "creativity occurs in an act of encounter and is to be understood with this encounter as its center" [11, p. 87]. Refer to Figure 2 below.

Description of the Factors

Three factors are needed for both creativity and empowerment. Empowerment requires a particular cognitive style which processes environmental data in ways which make choice possible, a perception of the environment as amenable to choice, and behaviors amenable to choice. The environment must then be open to individual influence which reinforces that cognition, and individual behavior must reinforce and be reinforced by the environment and be consistent with the individual's cognitive style. Similarly, creativity begins with a mind set which searches for alternatives, experiences the environment as responsive, and behaves inventively. This environment must also allow for alternative solutions to problems, must be supportive of deviant behavior, and must explore the alternatives.

The cognitive style of creative/empowered individuals is characterized by self-confidence, self-awareness, self-control, and self-efficacy. Further, they interpret their environment as flexible, filled with alternatives, and equi-final. They are broadly aware of and interested in their environment, and they are visionary, imaginative, and optimistic about the future.

The environment which enables creativity/empowerment is characterized by sharing information and building communication networks. Further, it is structured to encourage individual decision making, exercise of choice, and risk taking; its reward system is designed to reinforce activity and innovation versus stability and certainty, to reward success rather than to punish failure, and to value effort rather than discredit imperfection. Finally, the management style which develops creativity/empowerment is characterized by trust, delegation, challenge, and encouragement.

The behavior of creative/empowered persons includes activity, innovation, independence, and responsibility. They are invested, involved, committed, and persistent. They work hard, cope with adversity, and perform - they identify and explore alternatives.

It is important to note that each factor in the phenomena is fragile, and congruence between them is essential. The self-confident individual whose independent behavior is prohibited by a narrow job description quickly learns helplessness. The independent individual who experiments with alternatives and is ridiculed for failure rapidly becomes compliant. On the other hand, the organization populated by uncommitted and unaware employees which encourages network formation and information sharing may be courting disaster. Finally, behaviors which are foolishly risk taking put the organization immediately in peril and the mind set of self-efficacy eventually in jeopardy.

Creativity and Empowerment:

The Means

Creativity and empowerment may be achieved and enhanced through similar, multifaceted approaches. Since they are reciprocally influenced by three factors, these same three factors provide the means of their attainment. Since "creativity is the result of a delicate series of mental activities, all of which can be greatly influenced by the business atmosphere in which the executive works," managers must not demand creative behavior and maintain an inflexible environment [17, p. 121]. Since empowerment is largely the individual's awareness of self-control, organizations must not empower structurally without educating the employees regarding choice.

Therefore, to facilitate empowerment and creativity, the organization must examine and influence an individual's thinking pattern, the environment, and individual behavior. In short, any effective organizational approach to empowerment/creativity development must be three dimensional including cognition, environment, and behavior.

Cognitive Approaches

Educate to alternative possibilities. Teach employees what is possible; describe for them alternative scenarios; encourage critical thinking. When things go wrong, identify a VARIETY of explanations and contributing factors; avoid blaming and focus on alterations for a next time.

Teach mastery. Provide in-depth training and education; make employees technical experts. Provide in-house orientation and skill development. In addition, provide access to and reimbursement for community education and self-improvement. Keep personnel contemporary - make that an organizational as well as an individual responsibility.

Broaden awareness. Teach each employee the nature of their contribution to the total organization. Encourage cross training and job enrichment. Expand employee awareness of the industry as well as the total organization - its variety, uniqueness, goals, hierarchy, divisions, products, etc.

Focus on ends. Tell employees what is required as an end product. Focus less on HOW the outcome is achieved. Let employees exercise choice and be creative in their unique approach. Value varied approaches, taking initiative, and reward desirable outcomes. Avoid punishment for new approaches that do not work.

Stress efficacy. While making assignments and giving feedback regarding performance, emphasize the capability, skill, and competence of the employee. Focus on what they CAN do, not on what they CANNOT do. Act as coach to improve performance and indicate your confidence in their ability.

Make information available. Encourage employees to go where information is; facilitate cross departmental and cross level information networks. Enable employees to talk to others. Make relevant information readily accessible, and present in meaningful arrangements.

Reward independent thinking. Discourage responses that are commonplace or that are given in the hopes of winning approval. Encourage individuals to expand on new ideas. Practice brainstorming. Put into practice employee suggestions. Establish a forum for the expression of individual opinion and encourage criticism of processes - actively engage them in looking for new ways to do old (or new) things.

Relax rules. The probability for empowerment and creativity is inversely related to the number of rules and procedures which are employed by the organization. Develop codes of behavior which emphasize organizational values (i.e., honesty, support, quality) and that guide behavior but do not unnecessarily restrict it. Avoid writing step-by-step procedures.

Attune employees to organizational goals. Know what individual employees want; determine their life goals; and fit them with the goals of the organization. Teach employees the broad goals of the organization; inform them of the organization's choices regarding market segment, industry position, etc., so that employees can be supportive and can determine new ways in which they can be of service to the organization.

Behavioral Approaches

Assign challenging goals. Give employees a stimulating assignment and focus on the stimulation aspect of the job. Encourage employees to try to do an old job faster, with less slack, and in a new way and do a new job with precision, enthusiasm, and with an eye to efficiency. Rotate jobs; rotate people; give the group the assignment; and let them assign themselves to particular aspects of the task. Be versatile.

Delegate authority. Its an old saw but true nonetheless: make individuals accountable and responsible for tasks, for themselves, and they tend to behave responsibly. "Taking care of my people" is degrading and suggests that they are infantile. They are not; they are quite capable - let them demonstrate their maturity, mastery, and ability.

Assign the role of devil's advocate. Share the role of "what if." Not only will it give you a rest, it is very stimulating for the employee. It is a role they may need to be taught, but it will prevent "groupthink" as well as keep all employees alert to possibilities - both positive and negative.

The Downside

Both empowerment and creativity have negative aspects which are often ignored in the literature. However, they often deter managers from empowering employees or encouraging their creativity. Creativity can be inconvenient; it is often disruptive. Creative individuals are frequently dissatisfied with the status quo, impatient, and single minded; they commonly experience estrangement from their group. Similarly, empowered employees behave in surprising, unpredictable ways; they discard structure, routing, rules, and accepted procedures. Refusing to be part of a finely tuned orchestra, they occasionally produce noise - cacophony; they substitute effectiveness for efficiency.


Empowerment and creativity are not the same phenomenon; however, they are complementary. They may be superimposed on one another. They are both influenced by a way of thinking; their environmental requirements are similar; and they are expressed through behaviors. Although the potential for empowerment and creativity differs for each individual (because of their unique personal history), both can be enhanced by attention to these three factors.

The major difference between empowerment and creativity is in their scope. Creativity is somewhat more individualistic, while empowerment, although an individual phenomenon, produces more global and abstract outcomes. On-going empowerment will result in an employee who is committed and emotionally invested in the organization, who is broadly responsible, and who believes him/herself to be efficacious. The long term outcomes of creativity involve more tangible results: innovation, entrepreneurship, and invention. American industry needs both.


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[2.] Berglas, S. "Why Did This Happen to Me?" Psychology Today, February 1985, pp. 44-48.

[3.] Chusmir, L. H. and C. S. Koberg. "Creativity Differences Among Managers." Journal of Vocational Behavior, October 1986, pp. 240-253.

[4.] Conger, J. A. and R. N . Kanugo. "The Empowerment Process: Integrating Theory and Practice." Academy of Management Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1988, pp. 471-482.

[5.] Diamond, M. A. and S. Allcorn. "Psychological Barriers to Personal Responsbility." Organizational Dynamics, Spring 1984, pp. 66-91.

[6.] Harrison, R. "Strategies for a New Age." Human Resources Management, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1983, pp. 209-235.

[7.] ____________. "Empowerment in Organizations." Working Paper, Harrison Associates, Inc., 1985.

[8.] Hornstein, H. A. Managerial Courage. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1986.

[9.] Kanter, R. M. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

[10.] ____________. The Change Masters. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

[11.] May, R. The Courage to Create. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

[12.] McCluskey, J. E. "Beyond the Carrot and the Stick: Liberation and Power Without Control." In Bennis, W., R. Chin, and K. Corey, eds. The Planning of Change, 3rd edition. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1976, pp. 382-403.

[13.] Moglen, H. "Power and Empowerment." Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1983, pp. 131-134.

[14.] Perlman, J. "Grassroots Empowerment and Government Response." Social Policy, September/October 1979, pp. 16-21.

[15.] Peters, T. J. and R. H. Waterman. In Search of Excellence. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

[16.] Pfeffer, J. and G. R. Salancik. The External Control of Organizations. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

[17.] Randall, F. D. "Stimulate Your Executives to Think Creatively." Harvard Business Review, July-August 1955, pp. 121-128.

[18.] Rubin, I. M. and D. E. Berlew. "The Power Failure in Organizations." Training and Development Journal, January 1984, pp. 35-38.

[19.] Velthouse, B. A. "A Field Study in Empowerment." Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh, 1990.

[20.] von Gundy, A. G. "How to Establish a Creative Climate in the Work Group." Management Review, August 1984, pp. 24-38.

[21.] Von Oech, R. A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York: Warner Books, 1983.

[22.] Yankelovich, D. New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down. New York: Random House, 1981.

[23.] Zaleznik, A. "The Dynamics of Subordinacy." Harvard Business Review, May-June 1965, pp. 65-77.
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Author:Velthouse, Betty A.
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Sep 22, 1990
Previous Article:Creative thinking in business organizations.
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