Competencies testing and training has proved invaluable in business ever since Harvard psychologist David C. McClelland got the ball rolling in the 1970s.
Invariably, we have learned that murky human performance categories like sales ability and leadership can be broken down into skill sets that are not only measurable; they are also trainable.
I have pushed the competencies approach into several new areas over the years, including parenting, stress management, and even love, but the area where this approach has had the greatest success has been creativity. In a study I published in 2008, for example, eight months after 173 employees of a small city in California were trained in creativity competencies, managers were still receiving 55% more new ideas than they had been receiving before the training, and city officials attributed $600,000 in new revenues and $3.5 million in innovative revenue reductions specifically to the training.
Based on a review of relevant research and theory, my collaborators and I have identified four core competencies that help individuals express more creativity, sometimes boosting creative output dramatically:
1. Broadens knowledge and skills: Deliberately acquires knowledge and skills well outside one’s current areas of expertise.
2. Captures new ideas: Preserves novel ideas as they occur, without first judging or editing them.
3. Manages surroundings: Surrounds oneself with diverse and novel physical and social stimuli.
4. Seeks challenges: Seeks challenges and manages failure constructively.
A study I published in 2012 of more than 13,000 people in 47 countries showed that of the four, Capturing New Ideas (#2) has the most impact on people’s creative output. That’s great news given how easy it is these days to record one’s new ideas on portable devices.
We have also identified eight competencies that help managers elicit creativity in subordinates. In a recent study with an ethnically-diverse sample of 1,337 managers in 19 countries (mainly the U.S. and Canada), we were able to rank order the eight managerial competencies according to how well they predicted desirable outcomes in the workplace, such as how much creativity subordinates express, as reported by their managers. The eight competencies—derived from empirical research, sound theory, and case studies—were as follows:
1. Challenges subordinates: Gives people difficult problems to solve and ambitious goals to reach, while also helping them to manage stress.
2. Encourages broadening: Provides people with training in topic areas well outside their current areas of expertise.
3. Encourages capturing: Encourages people to preserve their new ideas and provides tools that make it easy for them to capture such ideas.
4. Manages teams appropriately: Creates diverse teams with changing memberships and uses shifting, brainstorming, and other techniques to maximize creative output.
5. Models the core competencies of creative expression: Shows others that you, as a supervisor, practice one or more of the core competencies of creative expression.
6. Provides adequate and appropriate resources: Provides materials, tools, and time adequate for subordinates to solve problems or generate new products or methods.
7. Provides a diverse and changing physical and social work environment: Creates a diverse and interesting physical and social work environment and alters it periodically.
8. Provides positive feedback and recognition: Rewards people for contributing new and valuable ideas.
By far, the most valuable managerial competency proved to be “Provides adequate and appropriate resources” (#6), which is consistent with a recent recommendation from Art Markman at the University of Texas at Austin: If you want your people to be more creative, give them more free time to think.
The next most valuable competency was “Provides a diverse and changing environment” (#7). Unfortunately, the study also showed that managers are generally only so-so at managing creativity; the average score on the test was a disappointing 68%, with managers consistently scoring high in only two areas: “Provides positive feedback and recognition” (#8) and “Encourages broadening” (#2)—the simplest and most obvious ways to encourage creativity but not the most powerful.
The study also suggested that women are better at managing creativity than men, perhaps because they are more supportive, more willing to listen, and more likely to give people the space they need to think. Women outscored men by a statistically significant margin in all eight competency areas—an impressive consistency in the data.
So creativity, like leadership, can be broken down into measurable, trainable competencies, and providing such training pays off both with more creative output and more money. Sooner or later, we need to drop the shroud of mystery in which we have long cloaked creativity and get on with the serious business of enhancing it. Competencies are the key.
You can get a quick measure of your core competencies of creative expression athttp://MyCreativitySkills.com or of your managerial skills athttp://MyCreativitySkills.com/managers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: DR. ROBERT EPSTEIN
ROBERT EPSTEIN is an author, editor, and longtime psychology researcher and professor—a distinguished scientist who is passionate about educating the public about advances in mental health and the behavioral sciences. The former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, Dr. Epstein is currently Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and a contributing editor for Scientific American Mind. He is also the founder and Director Emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts.