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  • Faculty & Research

    Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

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  • Faculty & Research

    Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

    386
Friday, May 15, 2020

Does knowing people from all kinds of backgrounds boost workplace creativity?

By Yaping Gong, Tae-Yeol Kim and Zhiqiang Liu

Does having a diverse array of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and other contacts in one’s social network influence creativity?

We theorize creative self-efficacy - the belief one has the ability to produce creative outcomes - as a motivational explanation for the relationship between diversity of social ties and creativity. We also put forth that tie strength is a limiting factor on this mechanism.

Our results showed that diversity of social ties had a direct positive relationship with creative self-efficacy and an indirect positive relationship with employee creativity via creative self-efficacy. These direct and indirect relationships were fortified when tie strength was reinforced. We show the importance of diversity of social ties and tie strength and their synergistic role in the motivational process linking social ties to creativity.

Background

Scholars have paid much attention to the role of social ties – interpersonal connections that provide access to resources - in creativity i.e. the generation of new and useful ideas. This social-ties perspective on creativity has largely taken an informational angle. For instance, it has been argued that weak ties (i.e. ties of low duration, infrequent interactions and low emotional closeness) provide access to distinct social circles and, thus, to diverse information, whereas strong ties (i.e. ties of long duration, frequent interactions and high emotional closeness) provide access to similar individuals and, thus, to redundant information. Access to diverse information then facilitates creativity through cognitive recombination and unusual connection.

However, as some scholars have pointed out, weak ties are conducive to information diversity under certain conditions, but not always. Similarly, others have suggested that weak ties do not necessarily provide access to distinct social circles and, thus, to diverse information, whereas strong ties do not necessarily connect the same social circles and, thus, provide redundant information.

The main aims of the study are twofold. One, to theorize and examine whether diversity of social ties has an indirect positive relationship with employee creativity via enhancing creative self-efficacy. And two – to examine the idea that tie strength moderates (amplifies) the effect of diversity of social ties on creative self-efficacy and subsequently employee creativity, making creative self-efficacy an effective mechanism under reinforced tie strength.

An individual’s efficacy estimate can be influenced by his or her judgment of the task and interpersonal environment by which the individual assesses the availability of specific resources and constraints for performing the task at various levels. Examples of interpersonal environmental factors include availability of models and feedback information (resources), and examples of task environmental factors include distractions (e.g. noise) and physical setting. In the current study, we focus on social ties for work-related issues. These ties are found in a focal employee’s immediate social environment (e.g. peers and supervisors in the same team or unit) and beyond (e.g. individuals in other teams, units or even organizations). In creative problem solving, such social ties constitute those in the interpersonal and task environment because they are the individuals from whom the focal employee will seek advice on work-related issues.

To sum up, we hypothesize and test the following:

Hypothesis 1: The diversity of an employee’s social ties in terms of functional areas has an indirect positive relationship with the employee’s creative performance via the employee’s creative self-efficacy.

Hypothesis 2: An employee’s tie strength moderates the positive relationship between the diversity of the employee’s social ties and creative self-efficacy such that the relationship is amplified when the employee’s social ties are strong.

Hypothesis 3: An employee’s tie strength moderates the positive indirect relationship between the diversity of the employee’s social ties and employee’s creativity via the employee’s creative self-efficacy such that the relationship is amplified when the employee’s social ties are strong.

Discussion

Our objective was to examine how and when diversity of social ties influences creativity. We found that diversity of social ties has a positive indirect relationship with employee creativity via creative self-efficacy. Moreover, tie strength amplifies the direct relationship that diversity of social ties has with creative self-efficacy and its indirect relationship with employee creativity (via creative self-efficacy). These findings offer implications for theory and research.

Implications for creativity theory and research Implications for the social ties perspective on creativity. In this study, we theorize and empirically show that diversity of social ties increases employee creativity via employee creative self-efficacy. When an employee has social ties with individuals from diverse domains, he or she develops high creative self-efficacy. This finding supports the move towards focusing on diversity of social ties rather than relying on the distinction between weak and strong social ties (Baer, 2010). More importantly, this finding extends the social ties perspective on creativity.

The information argument has often been raised but has not been directly measured and tested. Moving beyond the information argument, we show creative self-efficacy as a motivational mechanism. The creative self-efficacy mechanism is in line with the information argument because one’s creative efficacy belief is partly based on acquired information and knowledge from his or her social ties. Creative self-efficacy, however, is largely motivational because it refers to one’s belief about capacity for creativity rather than actual knowledge and information, and such a belief propels an individual to work hard and persist in creative endeavours.

Moreover, an employee’s creative self-efficacy is influenced by the estimate of potential resources available for generating creative solutions when circumstances require. It can be also boosted by an individual’s exposure to diverse social ties as such an exposure develops awareness that different ways of thinking and behaving are possible. Both sources of efficacy belief do not rely on the actual knowledge and information acquired from social ties. Secondly, we show that the diversity of ties and tie strength are important and that they jointly strengthen employees’ creative self-efficacy and consequently their creativity.

Theoretically and empirically, tie strength in itself does not have clear-cut implications for creativity. Strong relationships enjoy the advantages of trust and support, which are conducive to creativity, but may involve at least some connections (ties) between similar individuals and generate conformity pressure. The two forces cancel each other out, generating a non-significant relationship with creativity. However, tie strength synergizes with diversity of social ties in the motivational process leading to creativity. Although having diverse social ties helps obtain diverse information and knowledge, it does not generate the most benefit unless these social ties are also strong, thus enabling increased resource estimation, deep exposure to different ways of thinking, and effective transference and assimilation of complex and difficult-to-transmit frames or tacit knowledge.

The implication is that diversity and strength should be separated as various concepts of social ties. This separation reveals the new insight that creative self-efficacy is an effective mechanism for diversity of social ties when tie strength is strong. Prior research has tested the main effects of strong and weak ties on creativity using the specific facets of tie strength separately. Inspired by prior research, we conducted additional analyses on the moderating role of tie strength by separating the three facets as well.

Results suggested that closeness and frequency of communication (interaction), but not duration, strengthen the relationship between diversity of social ties and creative self-efficacy. Conceptually, closeness and frequency of communication may more accurately reflect tie strength than duration. In addition, frequent communication (interaction) creates and enhances intimacy and trust, strengthening relationships. Interaction enables deep exposure, increased resource estimation and effective acquisition of information and knowledge and, thus, unleashes the potential of diversity of social ties for creative self-efficacy to a great extent. Duration of relationship, on the contrary, captures how long a relationship has existed but may not accurately reflect a close relationship and its associated frequent interaction.

Managerial implications

This study offers a few managerial implications for enhancing creativity in organizations. Firstly, instead of encouraging employees to form weak ties, managers should encourage and help employees to establish strong social ties with individuals from diverse functional areas. Such diverse social ties foster employees’ creative self-efficacy because of favourable estimation of resources available for creative idea generation, deep exposure to and, thus, awareness of different thought worlds and the effective transfer and assimilation of knowledge from those ties.

One approach is providing a platform (e.g. a forum) for individuals from diverse functional areas to contact one other and, thus, establish relationships. Managers and organizations can also develop HR policies and practices that promote the formation of social ties (e.g. train people in and evaluate people regarding establishing beneficial social ties). Indeed, strategic human resource management research suggests that a firm’s network-building human resource practices (i.e. a bundle of internally consistent human resource practices that motivate and support employees in building social ties) enhance social capital (e.g. resources) and firm performance.

Secondly, managers should encourage employees not only to establish diverse social ties but also to strengthen them if possible because the combination of both leads to the greatest creative self-efficacy and subsequently creativity. Managers can provide many opportunities for individuals from different functional areas to interact with one another to improve the strength of their relationships. After-work interactions among people from different functional areas can be helpful as well. Furthermore, managers can rotate employees in and out of different functional areas. Doing so can provide an opportunity for employees to work closely together for a few months or years and, thus, strengthen their relationships. In terms of office allocation, one possibility is to mix people from different areas on the same floor to facilitate cross-area interaction and exchange.

Conclusion

To conclude, we provide initial evidence for creative self-efficacy as a motivational mechanism linking diversity of social ties and employee creativity and tie strength as a boundary condition for this mechanism. We add a motivational explanation to complement the information argument. The insight is that social ties should be diverse and strong to most effectively fuel creative self-efficacy, which subsequently motivates excellent employee creativity.

This is an abridged version of an academic paper which can be obtained here.

Dr. Tae Yeol Kim is Professor of Management, at CEIBS. For more on his teaching and research interests, please visit his faculty profile.

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