Calling all executives ‒ this is how you can help your employees to be both efficient and creative

Research by Assistant Professor Olli-Pekka Kauppila has shown that efficiency and creativity are not mutually exclusive. What should managers do to achieve this combination?

'People with strong self-confidence work ambidextrously,' says Olli-Pekka Kauppila, summarizing the results of a study of the characteristics that help an employer to be efficient and innovative at the same time.

‘Ambidextrous’ means being able to use both hands equally on a daily basis. This has a different meaning in Kauppila’s study. He examines which factors strengthen an individual’s ability to act efficiently and creatively at the same time.

Ambidextrous people in this sense are like those who are ambidextrous in the traditional manner, i.e. both traits - efficiency and creativity - are equally strong.

The employee's strengths: high self-confidence and willingness to experiment

Why is it that people who have strong self-confidence are simultaneously creative and innovative?

'Highly self-confident people are more willing than others to embrace a so-called learning orientation in their work. Their approach to, say, a project is based on curiosity and wondering what they can learn from it. They are not afraid of errors, because strong self-confidence helps them to think: I am good at this, regardless of any mistakes I make,' says Kauppila.

Learning-centeredness enables an employee, such as a product developer, to make detailed, fine adjustments while being fearlessly playful in inventing new ways of thinking about the product in question.

'Strong self-confidence is a kind of trait which develops from early childhood. Little can be done to affect it,' says Kauppila.

A positive attitude to learning can be developed

A performance-oriented employee seeks to maximize her performance and avoid mistakes. Such an employee can strive towards learning-centeredness by considering issues other than just performance. For example: What would I like to learn more about? What do I want to achieve? What inspires and motivates me in my work?

By consciously pursuing learning orientation, you can come closer to a situation in which efficiency and innovativeness are combined.

'Several studies have shown that a positive learning orientation leads to better results than performance-centeredness.'

If you aim to maximize the short-term result, focusing on performance may be sufficient. However, learning orientation is the key to better results in the long term: there may be setbacks, but better results are achieved in the end.

Management must demand and support

The study’s second main finding relates to the context in which the employee works. Poor leadership, or leadership of the wrong kind, can prevent simultaneous creativity and effectiveness, no matter how self-confident and learning-oriented an employee is.

Kauppila describes the leadership style which supports ambidextrousness in employees: 'Two things are needed. You need to provide strong social support. In other words, an employee can rely on receiving support, even if she tries something new and it goes wrong. But you must also demand high performance in tasks.'

The advice for managers is clear: 'Strive for a management style based on providing social support while expecting a high level of performance.'

If you do not realize both of these leadership elements, there will be no combination of efficiency and creativity.

'If you demand great results, but fail to provide support, people will be afraid of failure. Support from the manager is the critical component,' Kauppila says.

If you are focused only on efficiency, new innovations or practices will not arise.

'People are relatively rational. Creativity and new ways of doing things can lead to failures. If your only aim is a good performance, then based on "doing the math" it makes sense to do only what you already know.'

The story behind the research

Assistant Professor Olli-Pekka Kauppila, Organization and Management, School of Business, Department of Management Studies. He completed his doctoral thesis at Aalto University School of Business in 2011.

The Social-Cognitive Underpinnings of Employees’ Ambidextrous Behaviour and the Supportive Role of Group Managers’ Leadership was based on an analysis of data from 34 organizations. The organizations represent different sectors and vary in size. Kauppila performed the study in collaboration with Assistant Professor Michiel Tempelaar.

The work began in Helsinki. In 2013, Kauppila was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Irvine. He completed the research in Finland, where the data was gathered.

What was the highlight of your study of ambidextrous behavior?
'It was the realization that our own model worked. The results are significant, the indexes look good. It’s a great feeling to have made a new finding in your discipline.'

What excites you about research?
'I am interested in the psychological processes that explain human behavior. In addition, I always examine the relevance of the context: for example, what kind of leadership or atmosphere does the organization have and what kind of role does it play in general.'

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