How to improve group creativity: the role of gender and competition

To keep up with a rapidly-changing market the organizations invest more and more on innovation to be competitive. Relying on work-teams is a widespread practice to enhance the individual potential for creativity.

Scholars have broadly investigated how group composition and group dynamics such as conflict affect the creative outcomes of the team. That is, the features and the history of the groups impact their creativity: a proper management of the team composition and of its processes is crucial in obtaining a good performance.
What can be done outside the group? Do contextual factors affect group creativity? Indeed, they do. External demands modulate group creativity.
This post focuses on a factor which has been proven to impact team creativity: intergroup competition. 

I compete, therefore I create

Competing is a powerful force in the human behavior. It might have happened in your experience to belong to a group, like a sport team, that competed for winning. When it happens the members of the group tend to feel a stronger sense of belonging, they feel linked to each others in order to obtain together the victory. Psychologists call this feeling “interdependence” and recognize it to have a key role in group dynamics. How is this translated into behaviors? The straight consequence of such a mind-set is an increase of collaboration among group members. A cooperative environment creates the ideal condition for people to share their knowledge and opinions, which is the premise to generate new ideas.

If you believe that putting a group in a competitive environment is enough to enhance collaboration and thereby to boost creativity, this article comes to warn you. While it is difficult to claim that a cooperative environment may be somehow detrimental to novel ideas generation, it is not always true that intergroup competition leads to an increase in collaboration.
Baer, Vadera, Leenders and Oldham (2013) claim that not only intergroup competition is not always good for collaboration, but that the former may even impair the latter. Namely, their study point out that gender composition plays a crucial role in regulating the effect of intergroup competition on group creativity. It seems in fact that some differences that men and women display in their behaviors are owe to the expectations that the society has on them on the basis of their gender. Because men are expected to be dominant and masterful, when carrying out a task in a competitive environment they will strive to “win” the competition. If working with a team, this implies making the best out of the group resources, that is collaborating. On the other hand, women are thought to be prosocial and unselfish and engaging into a competition would clash with the image they are given. The study (Baer et al., 2013) confirms its hypotheses both in a laboratory experiment and in an organizational context: intergroup competition enhances team collaboration, and therefore creativity, only for groups mostly composed of men, while it decreases team collaboration and creativity for groups mostly composed of women. Moreover the scholars found that these effects only occurred when the perceived-competition was high.

 

Takeaways for your practice

Intergroup competition has already been introduced by the organizations as a practice to spur innovation. Baer and colleagues bring the example of the annual competition “Innovista” promoted by India’s Tata Group, which gives an award to the group elected as the most innovative over more than 1000 teams.

While Tata Group’s contest relies on competition as a facilitator of group creativity, the above-reported study shows that intergroup competition must be carefully treated. Sex composition is a key factor to take into account when planning to create groups in competitive environments. Teams mostly composed by men strive to give their best if the task they are assigned to are simultaneously carried out by other groups. Creating a competition would be therefore useful, and so would be pretending that there is one: if recruiting several groups weren’t an option, the sole team working on a project could still be told that there is one. What about women? Groups composed solely by women give their best in non-competitive environments. Nevertheless Niederle (2013) proved that reducing the negative effects of intergroup competition women are – as well as men- encouraged to compete. In the study that he conducted affirmative action quota was the mechanism used to improve women performance in a competitive environment. That is, for every two winners at least one had to be a woman. A similar strategy could be used in an intergroup-context in guaranteeing among the winners an equal number of groups mostly composed by men/women.

What about you? How do you foster creativity in your group?

 

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References

Baer, M., Vadera, A. K., Leenders, R. T., & Oldham, G. R. (2013). Intergroup Competition as a Double-Edged Sword: How Sex Composition Regulates the Effects of Competition on Group Creativity. Organization Science, 25(3), 892-908.

You can find the original article here.


Niederle, M., Segal, C., & Vesterlund, L. (2013). How costly is diversity? Affirmative action in light of gender differences in competitiveness. Management Science, 59(1), 1-16.

You can find the original article here.

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