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    Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

  • Faculty & Research

    Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Perceived Cognitive Diversity and Creativity: A Multi-level Study of Motivational Mechanisms and Boundary Conditions

By Tae-Yeol Kim, Emily M. David and Zhiqiang Liu

Creativity (i.e., the generation of novel and useful ideas) can enhance firm competitiveness under the right conditions. As diverse teams are usually assembled to produce creative ideas, and cognitive team diversity (i.e., diversity among team members in terms of thinking, knowledge, skills, world views, and beliefs) provides diverse cognitive resources for generating creative ideas, interest in the role of cognitive team diversity in creativity has been growing. Extant research suggests that cognitive team diversity can enhance creativity, especially when transformational leadership and team perspective-taking are high. Few studies, however, have theorised and examined how cognitive team diversity influences creativity. For example, does cognitive team diversity similarly influence team creativity and individual creativity? And, does this process involve the same intrinsic motivation mechanism?

In this study, we also examine learning goal orientation (i.e., the extent to which a team or an individual emphasises learning and competence development) as a moderating variable that enhances the effects of cognitive team diversity on creativity. When team members strongly share a goal of learning, they are more likely to enjoy working with people who have different ways of thinking, thus increasing team intrinsic motivation.

Cognitive team diversity and creativity

Scholars have suggested that a mix of different perspectives within teams may stimulate team members to develop unique ideas. Consistent with this, the information/decision-making perspective notes that differences among team members may bring valuable and complementary task-relevant dissimilarities that may extend the accessible information in diverse teams and thus enhance creativity. Conversely, however, other researchers have argued that cognitive team diversity disrupts creativity based on the view that dissimilarity is associated with excessive conflict. In particular, they suggest that different views and opinions among team members can disrupt team performance by decreasing the quality of team member interaction and the extent to which task representations are shared. Moreover, still others have found no significant association between cognitive team diversity and team member creativity.

Several studies have also examined the intervening mechanisms between cognitive team diversity and creativity. Although these studies have substantiated the important role of a cognitive mechanism, the question remains whether different perspectives within a team could enhance intrinsic motivation and thus enable more creativity. Therefore, despite the importance of cognitive team diversity and creativity for organisations, when and how cognitive team diversity influences creativity are still not yet well understood.

Perceived cognitive diversity and intrinsic motivation

Individual intrinsic motivation refers to the extent to which individuals engage in work primarily for its own sake, because the work itself is interesting and engaging. Team intrinsic motivation can be defined as the collective level of engagement and interest in work among team members. Moreover, through regular social interaction, coordination, and collaboration with others, team members can develop a shared belief about team experiences, such as how much team members generally enjoy doing team tasks.

Contextual factors may also enhance intrinsic motivation if they provide relevant information that boosts enthusiasm for doing the job well. When team members are exposed to various ways of thinking, knowledge, and skills relevant to their tasks (i.e., a team high in perceived cognitive diversity), they may feel stimulated and find solving complex problems as a team to be enjoyable. However, as previously discussed, diverse perspectives may also cause conflict among team members and thus weaken the feeling of team enthusiasm. Further, prior studies have noted that perceived dissimilarity in work-style, for example, can actually lower employee tendency to engage in perspective-taking, potentially limiting the extent to which they actually learn from others. These mixed results suggest that to actualise the potential benefit of cognitive team diversity for intrinsic motivation, team members working in teams perceived to be cognitively diverse need to be encouraged to build positive team dynamics, such as actively learning from others’ different opinions and building on each other’s ideas.

The moderating roles of learning goal orientation

Learning goal orientation may also serve as a boundary condition that determines whether or not perceived cognitive diversity enhances intrinsic motivation. Learning goal orientation pertains to the extent to which a team or individual emphasises learning and competence development. When team members share a goal of continuous improvement, they are likely to enjoy working with people who employ different ways of thinking and possess unique knowledge and skills, thus increasing intrinsic motivation.

Theoretically, teams with a shared learning orientation that emphasises learning and competence development tend to pursue new ideas that largely digress from current thinking and practice. As a result, they more likely view a high degree of cognitive team diversity as helpful rather than disruptive. Instead of interpreting different perspectives and opinions as ways to disrupt team performance, team members sharing a strong team learning goal orientation are likely to regard the perceived differences within a team as resources for mutual learning and competence development in the team. In addition, a learning goal orientation is positively related to a preference for challenging and demanding tasks. Therefore, facing different ideas or perspectives from team members, teams with a higher learning goal orientation should be more enthused and intrinsically motivated to seek out different ideas and develop constructive and integrative solutions.

Practical implications

In order to learn more about cognitive diversity and creativity, we collected data from 382 employees and their supervisors from 106 work teams in 35 organisations in a range of industries. Based on this study, we offer several important practical considerations for managers and organisations.

First, organisations are increasingly putting together cognitively diverse teams and assigning them innovative tasks, but their success has been mixed. Effectively managing diverse teams is critical to ensure that they are able to reap the benefits of heightened fairness perceptions and sustained competitive advantage. Our findings suggest that managers who would like to boost creativity in teams with a high level of cognitive team diversity should develop a strong team learning orientation. Without such an orientation, the potential of cognitive team diversity will not be fully unleashed. Managers may enhance team learning goal orientation by showing respect and encouraging the team to share their expertise, intellectually stimulating subordinates, enhancing knowledge sharing, and supporting subordinates to take risks and learn from their mistakes.

In addition, our findings suggest that the formation of cognitively diverse teams may be a beneficial approach to making jobs enjoyable, intrinsically motivating, and to foster creativity, particularly when the jobs are not inherently encouraging based on their inherent requirements. This implication is practically important because not every job can be inherently designed to require high creativity. Nevertheless, every job requires certain levels of creativity to produce better job performance. For example, sales jobs generally do not require high levels of creativity and are not inherently enjoyable, but sellers need to be creative to meet various customer demands. In this case, forming a sales team with perceived cognitive diversity (and encouraging individual and team learning) can help stimulate both intrinsic motivation and creativity. Managers may also wish to foster the growth of perceived cognitive diversity within teams by encouraging employees to seek feedback from diverse sources. Conversely, when jobs require creativity and are inherently interesting, building cognitively diverse teams may be less necessary. This implication is significant because the perception of perceived cognitive diversity may bring some unintended consequences (e.g., conflict).

This is a condensed version of an article which originally appeared in the Journal of Creative Behaviour here.

Tae-Yeol Kim is the Philips Chair in Management and Emily M. David is an Assistant Professor of Management at CEIBS. Zhiqiang Liu is an Associate Professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

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