Employee Creativity: Personal and Contextual Factors at Work

Oldham, G. & A. Cummings. 1996. Employee Creativity: Personal and Contextual Factors at Work. Academy of Management Journal. Vol 39, n. 3, pp. 607-634.

Most contemporary researchers and theorists have adopted a definition that focuses on the product or outcome of a product development process.

  1. they are novel original
  2. they are potentially relevant for, or useful to, an organization.

We consider a product, idea, or procedure novel if it involves either a significant recombination of existing materials or an introduction of completely new materials.

Creative performance
Products, ideas, and so forth produced at the individual level.

The successful implementation of these products at the organizational level.

Personal Characteristics and Creativity

These studies have demonstrated that a stable set of core personal characteristics, including broad interests, attraction to complexity, intuition, aesthetic sensitivity, toleration of ambiguity, and self-confidence, relate positively and consistently to measures of creative performance across a variety of domains.

Gough’s Creative Personality Scale (CPS) : The CPS includes 30 items empirically derived from the 300-item Adjective Check List.

Hypothesis 1: An employee’s score on the CPS will relate positively to employee creative performance.
Partial support (patents, but not rated creativity and suggestions)

Organizational Context and Creativity

Most research adopts an “intrinsic motivation” perspective: the context in which an individual performs a task influences his or her intrinsic motivation, which in turn affects creative achievement.

Individuals are free of extraneous concerns and are likely to take risks, to explore new cognitive pathways, and to be playful with ideas and materials. They are also likely to stay focused on the internal nature of the task and to work longer on an idea or a problem.

We therefore expected characteristics of an organizational context that promote or support intrinsic motivation to enhance creative achievement.

Job complexity

The design of jobs has long been considered an important contributor to employees’ intrinsic motivation and creative performance at work. Specifically, complex, challenging jobs are expected to support and encourage higher levels of motivation and creativity than are relatively simple, routine jobs.

The Motivating Potential Score (MPS) relies on measures of five job characteristics:

  1. High levels of autonomy
  2. Skill variety
  3. Identity
  4. Significance
  5. Feedback

Hypothesis 2: A job’s score on the MPS index will relate positively to employee creative performance.
Partial support (rated creativity only)

Supervisory style

Supervision that is supportive of employees is expected to enhance creative achievement; supervision that is controlling or limiting is expected to diminish creative performance.

Supportive behaviors

  • show concern for employees’ feelings and needs,
  • encourage them to voice their own concerns,
  • provide positive, chiefly informational feedback
  • facilitate employee skill development

Controlling behaviors

  • closely monitor employee behavior
  • make decisions without employee involvement
  • provide feedback in a controlling manner,
  • generally pressure employees to think, feel, or behave in certain ways

Supervision that is experienced as controlling undermines intrinsic motivation and shifts an employee’s focus of attention away from work activities and toward external concerns.

Hypothesis 3: Supportive supervision will relate positively to employee creative performance.
Not supported.

Hypothesis 4: Controlling supervision will relate negatively to employee creative performance
Partial support (only with rated creativity)

Joint Contributions of Personal and Contextual Characteristics

Commentators have long suggested that personal and contextual factors interact to affect creativity.

We posited a multiplicative model of creative performance involving employees’ creativity-relevant personal characteristics, job complexity, and supervisory style.

In essence, this model suggests that employee creativity is maximized when high levels of all the aforementioned conditions are present.

Hypothesis 5: Creativity-relevant personal characteristics and contextual conditions will interact in such a way that creative performance will be highest when employees score high on the CPS index, work on high-MPS jobs, and are supervised in both a supportive and noncontrolling fashion.

This study also explored the contributions of these characteristics to two traditional outcomes: overall work performance and intentions to quit (turnover intentions).


Two factors accounted for 52.9% of the variance:

  • The eight items with factor loadings ranging from .52 through .79 and reflected “supportive supervision.”
  • The remaining four items (loadings .57-.78) and reflected “controlling supervision.”


Contextual characteristics alone contributed independently to the performance and intentions to quit outcomes.

The interaction of the CPS and job complexity and that of the CPS and noncontrolling supervision contributed significantly to the suggestions outcome, and the four-way interaction term involving CPS ,job complexity, noncontrolling supervision, and supportive supervision contributed significantly to the patents and rated creativity outcomes.

Our results suggest that if creativity at work is to be enhanced, an individualized or selective approach to management may be warranted:

  • high-CPS employees might be placed in complex, enriched jobs and managed in a supportive, noncontrolling fashion
  • low-CPS employees, enriching jobs and managing in a supportive manner may have few beneficial effects or may actually have adverse effects on creative achievement

Employees with adaptive styles work within existing structures to make incremental changes and “do things better.”

Employees with innovative styles treat current structures as part of the problem and make more radical changes by “doing things differently”.

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