Witnessing the thriving of businesses in collectivistic countries as well as Western organizations’ increasing dependence on work groups, many scholars suggested that organizations should start endorsing collectivistic, instead of individualistic values, to better adapt to current working environment. Indeed, promoting collectivistic values within a company does have many potential benefits, such as increased harmony and cooperation, and reduced employees’ tendency to shirk responsibility. However, the downside of endorsing collectivistic values, especially the risk of constraining creativity, has not been investigated. To address this potential problem, J. A. Goncalo and B. M. Staw examined people’s creativity when working in individualistic vs. collectivistic groups.
Whereas individualism emphasizes independence, uniqueness, non-conformity, and striving for special recognition, collectivism values quite the opposite – interdependence, conformity, maintaining harmony, and promoting group interests. These values are relevant to group creativity because research has found that when people work in groups, they have a natural tendency to comply with the majority view for fear of being criticized. However, creativity is, by definition, something novel and not readily accepted. Therefore, the first prediction that Goncalo and Staw made was that individualistic groups would encourage more creative ideas, because the group values may relieve the pressure to conform to the majority view. On the other hand, they predicted that collectivistic groups would have diminished creativity because the group values would increase the pressure to conform to majority view.
However, collectivistic or individualist values are not the ultimate determinant of group creativity – Goncalo and Staw considered the potential of group objective in altering the effect of these values on group creativity. Specifically, one prediction was that when groups are explicitly instructed to be creative, collectivistic groups may demonstrate greater creativity than individualistic groups. The logic is that since members in collectivistic groups have stronger desire to meet the group expectations and achieve the group objective, they demonstrate greater creativity when it becomes a stated objective.
At the same time, Goncalo and Staw predicted that the contrast situation – individualistic groups outperform collectivistic groups on creative tasks when being instructed to be creative – may also hold true. The logic is that although individualistic groups contain characteristics that foster creativity, these characteristics may only manifest and support generation of creative work when being demanded to do so. Therefore, it was predicted that when creativity is the group objective, members of individualistic groups are encouraged to maximize the advantage of individualistic values, and in turn facilitate the group to achieve its full creative potential.
To test these predictions, Goncalo and Staw conducted their study on 68 groups with 204 students at an American university. In the study, all groups were invited to come up with solutions to a decision problem. Prior to the task began, groups were installed with either collectivistic or individualist values, and instructed to be either creative or practical with their solution so that the effect of cultural orientation and group objective can be compared. Group values (i.e. collectivism and individualism) were installed by asking participants to recall behaviours that are in accordance with the targeted value. Group objective (i.e. creativity and practicality) was set through oral instructions. To assess creativity, researchers considered the number, diversity, and the rated level of creativity of solutions being generated.
The results, surprisingly, did not demonstrate a difference in creativity between collectivistic groups and individualistic groups on any of the three measures (i.e. number of solutions generated, solution diversity, rated creativity). However, when given instructions for creativity, individualistic groups were more creative than collectivistic groups. Moreover, the creativity level of individualistic groups varied according to the group objective, whereas creativity level of collectivistic groups did not. In others words, individualistic groups were more creative when given instructions for creativity rather than practicality; whereas collectivistic groups remained the same level of creativity regardless of the instructions.
The findings of this study may be applicable to organization management. First of all, in contrast to a compelling notion that collectivistic groups can be creative, collectivistic values may not boost creativity in a company. Therefore, adapting collectivistic values may not always be the optimal choice for companies, especially for those whose competitiveness rely on innovation. Additionally, combining collectivistic values with demand for creativity may not result in higher creativity. Therefore, companies should not expect that simply demanding a collective group to follow the objective of creativity would lead to highly creative work.
In conclusion, although individualistic companies may work less efficiently and their employees may hold less coherent attitudes, individualism may still bring values to the company by encouraging creative solutions.