Businesses with employees that identify as “miserable” at work make 23% less profit than businesses with engaged employees3 - but only 15% of the world’s workforce feels engaged at work.2,3
Something is clearly wrong with the way we structure work, and the science points towards a lack of creativity as a core reason.
Considering our psychological needs when re-assessing our work culture
The importance of reigniting creativity at work
To bring engagement back into the workplace requires a genuine effort to reform culture. Our current working culture hasn’t adapted to major shifts in the past decades, like technological growth, improved quality of life, and increasing educational standards.7 If we want to solve this crisis, we need to fulfill our basic psychological needs by valuing creativity, fairness, and purposeful work.
The food, water, and shelter of our minds
Self-determination Theory (SDT) posits a model of innate and universal psychological needs — a reconstruction of Maslow’s infamous Hierarchy of Needs - that revolves around 3 basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
- We feel competent when we feel capable of doing things well. Depravation within the workplace can look like being micromanaged, too much bureaucracy, or being assigned tedious tasks with no challenge or meaning.
- Autonomy dictates that we feel in control of our own actions without external motivation. Depravation means not being able to pursue our own ideas, and instead being forced to execute commands without creative liberty.
- Relatedness is fulfilled when we feel included in a healthy community. Sitting in cubicles, eating lunch separately, and feeling isolated from your colleagues can deprive us of relatedness.
These are the food and water of your psychological well-being. They argue that things like self-esteem ultimately serve as hollow replacements, and that chasing them can be counterintuitive to our well-being.
We often try to solve the problem backwards, resulting in dissatisfaction. For example, our cravings for self-esteem will be futile if we do not recognize our true deprivation: competence. It’s like eating cotton balls to feel full. Working towards competence, autonomy, and relatedness is what accrues self-esteem as a byproduct.
Behavioral Science, Democratized
We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.
At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.
How the deprivation of psychological needs destroys workplace satisfaction
The modern workplace often deprives employees of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. For example:
- Autonomy: When you start doing a hobby for money, you begin to perceive it as a way that society exerts control on you.
- Competence: Being yelled at or spoonfed by your boss.
- Relatedness: Spending 9 hours in a cubicle every day.
These things cause you to become less motivated to engage in the activity.4 The “miserable” 19% of the workforce likely feels incompetent, nonautonomous, unrelated, or a mix of the three. Luckily, there are solutions that bolster all three psychological needs — one is reigniting creative freedom within our workplaces.
Unpacking the origins of our creativity crisis
How emphasizing creativity in the workplace unlocks new levels of productivity
Our current engagement epidemic is closely related to our lack of creative liberty in the office — most companies tend to think that creativity counteracts productivity within the corporate hierarchical structure.6,7
However, many researchers suggest that it is the opposite — that a lack of creativity is actually responsible for a downturn in employee performance.3
Following SDT, fostering creative liberty within a workplace has a ripple effect by directly enhancing our 3 basic psychological needs:
- Autonomy: I decide what I do today, and how I do it!
- Competence: I’m being trusted to do what I believe is right!
- Relatedness: They trust me to figure out my own tasks. They must respect me!
When our psychological needs are satisfied, we can feel engaged and be more productive.
How intrinsic motivation yields better performance
Opposed to other mechanisms of motivation within workplaces, creative liberty bolsters our intrinsic motivation, not our extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, and fuels our own desires to reach a goal or complete a task, whereas extrinsic motivation comes from external sources such as money, hierarchal commands, or peer pressure. Intrinsic motivation is more predictive of performance than extrinsic motivation.11
You can see why: intrinsic motivation lines up with autonomy and competence, feelings that can’t be fully fulfilled by external sources.1
Creative liberty within the workplace increases engagement and intrinsic motivation, leading employees to take more initiative — in turn, giving them more creative liberty. So how can we reorganize the workplace to encourage creativity?
Bolstering intrinsic motivation and building a creative culture through extrinsic rewards
Community-fuelled intrinsic motivation
Using extrinsic rewards to fuel intrinsic motivation may seem contradictory, but doing so shows that the company values creativity. This helps create a culture of creative freedom, molding the workplace into a safe space for employees to pursue intrinsic motivations to be creative.
However, we can’t just pick a cool idea every month. Creativity-contingent rewards only increase intrinsic motivation and creativity when the reward system is transparent and fair, even more so than the timeliness of the reward.12
Fair and democratic rewards motivate employees through SDT:
- Fairness ensures that doing creative work, which is under their control, will result in reward, bolstering autonomy
- They assure the employee of their own competence if they are rewarded
- Democratic, peer-to-peer reward systems connects people within the organization by giving employees an avenue to recognize others, increasing relatedness on both ends.
To ensure this, clearly describe the reward allocation process and make sure it’s democratic. This enables meaningful recognition for creative acts instead of creating an arbitrary reward system that is inefficient at inspiring creative efforts.
Extrinsic rewards, intrinsic motivation: in action
Picture this: a peer-to-peer kudos system where co-workers reward each other for individual creativity and initiative. When an employee finds a co-worker’s idea creative and inspiring, they could shoutout their colleague in a Slack channel. At the end of the month, there could be a monetary reward or fun prize for the employee with the most mentions.
Here’s another way to do it: at the end of a weekly meeting, dedicate 10 minutes for people to bring up creative ideas from their co-workers. A different person could decide which idea gets the reward each week based on what inspired them the most, keeping the process democratic.
These ensure that each person can nominate and be nominated, and that all opinions are equally heard. The process should be a heartwarming and appreciative — it could even be the birthplace of great projects, since it gives the person a platform to elaborate and enables team discussion.
Emphasize CSR projects and meaningful work
Speaking of contributing creatively, CSR projects are a great opportunity to crystallize those contributions. Whether or not your company already has regular CSR projects in progress, get interested employees to come up with some new ideas (and make sure to balance out their workload!). We go back to SDT to explain its ability to engage employees:
- Autonomy: Having employees themselves come up with CSR-related passion projects encourages independent creativity
- Relatedness: Encouraging employees to collaborate across a team can
- create a sense of community
- unify them towards a meaningful objective
- allow them to identify with a cause larger than themselves
- help them perceive themselves as playing an important role in the company’s future and public image.8
- Competence: It allows them to vizualise the positive impacts their individual work can have on its stakeholders and the world.
Creating workplaces that breed autonomy, competence, relatedness, creativity, and productivity
We don’t have to look at workplaces and immediately associate them with monotonous, unengaging, and “miserable” hours of toil. Creative work cultures can be intentionally fostered. Creative collaboration, fair extrinsic reward systems, and CSR initiatives can all support employee well-being, satisfaction, and productivity.
The Decision Lab is a management consultancy that uses behavioral science to promote social good. We help industry leaders boost employee engagement and productivity in healthy, human-centric ways. If you'd like to work together, get in touch.
- Armstrong, K. (2022). Mastering Motivation. APS Observer, 32. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/mastering-motivation
- Clifton, J. (2017, June 13). The World’s Broken Workplace. Gallup.com; Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/chairman/212045/world-broken-workplace.aspx?g_source=position1&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles
- Clifton, J. (2022, June 14). The World’s Workplace is Broken -- Here’s How to Fix It. Gallup.com; Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/393395/world-workplace-broken-fix.aspx
- Eisenberger, R. & Shanock, L. (2003). Rewards, intrinsic motivation, and creativity: A case study of conceptual and methodological isolation. Creativity Research Journal, 15(2-3), 121–130. https://doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2003.9651404
- Fuller, J., & Kerr, W. (2022, March 23). The Great Resignation Didn’t Start with the Pandemic. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/03/the-great-resignation-didnt-start-with-the-pandemic
- Johnson, B. M. (2009). Individual creativity and its association to individual productivity in the workplace (Order No. 3376002). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I: Business; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I: Health & Medicine; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I: Social Sciences; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: Business; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global(TRUNCATED). (305127215). https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/individual-creativity-association-productivity/docview/305127215/se-2?accountid=14512
- Minahan, & Härtel, C. (2005). Creativity, celebration and play at the Bauhaus, Berlin, 1920: lessons from history for contemporary marketers and arts organizations. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 10(4), 249–261. https://doi.org/10.1002/nvsm.29
- Nazir, O., Islam, J. U., & Rahman, Z. (2021). Effect of CSR participation on employee sense of purpose and experienced meaningfulness: A self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 46, 123–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhtm.2020.12.002
- Robison, J., & Ratanjee, V. (2022, June 14). Trust Is in Decline: Here’s How to Rebuild It. Gallup.com; Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/393401/trust-decline-rebuild.aspx
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L.(2013). The Importance of Universal Psychological Needs for Understanding Motivation in the Workplace. In Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199794911.013.003
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 101860. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860
About the Authors
Janessa is a rising junior at the University of California, Los Angeles pursuing a BS in Cognitive Science with a Specialization in Computing, and minoring in Bioinformatics. She believes that psychology holds the power to ameliorate many of the world’s biggest problems, with climate change being one that she holds closest to her heart. It ultimately serves as a roadmap to why humans do what they do. Understanding this roadmap — our predispositions, biases, and instincts — are crucial to guiding people to make better choices for themselves, others, and our planet.
Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. A decision scientist with an MSc in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul’s work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.
Sarah Chudleigh is passionate about the accessible distribution of academic research. She has had the opportunity to practice this as an organizer of TEDx conferences, editor-in-chief of her undergraduate academic journal, and lead editor at the LSE Social Policy Blog. Sarah gained a deep appreciation for interdisciplinary research during her liberal arts degree at Quest University Canada, where she specialized in political decision-making. Her current graduate research at the London School of Economics and Political Science examines the impact of national values on motivations to privately sponsor refugees, a continuation of her interest in political analysis, identity, and migration policy. On weekends, you can find Sarah gardening at her local urban farm.