How To Motivate Creativity In R&D People At Work

“There’s a great deal of fun in being creative.

Not so much HA-HA fun, as AH-HAH fun.”

Feelings control motivation, which is the desire to do something. R&D people often carry out activities at work that seem to offer nothing beyond the activity itself. No surprises here. You do this with your hobbies or sports. How much people engage in an activity at work without a tangible reward reflects their inner motivation; the real reward lies in the good feelings (fun, enjoyment, pleasure, delight, joy) produced by doing the activity.

Inner motivation stimulates creative accomplishment at work if people find it satisfying and enjoyable. Sometimes people become so focused they don’t notice their surroundings. They ‘trance out’ and report feeling elated. Elation provides an inner reward in hobbies, games, and aesthetic experiences, but it doesn’t occur often enough at work.

Some of the fuel that produces daily enjoyment in R&D includes: feeling competent and self-directed; working independently on a challenging problem; sense of satisfaction; getting daily respect; total immersion in work; a sense of play rather than work; learning new things. These provide a boost to creative work in R&D.

On the other hand, external motivators, motivators from outside a person, produce negative feelings: tenseness, fear, resentment, irritation, or worse, due to the usual reward and punishment systems that many R&D leaders use. Negative feelings interfere with and lower the quality of R&D creative work, the reason we consider their effects here.

These external negative motivators for creativity at work include expected rewards (salary raises, promotions, bonuses, recognition, awards, honors) and punishments (not getting rewards, penalties for failure, performance appraisals, evaluations, imposed deadlines, competition with others, high control from others, restricted choices, close supervision and intrusions, watched by others, red tape, assigned routine jobs, meeting imposed goals, lack of freedom, abundance of quick negative criticism, little encouragement or appreciation, low acceptance of ideas, ineffective meetings, inappropriate leadership styles, unsuitable rewards, limited resources, overload of work, interruptions, demands of others, emphasis on productivity rather than creative thinking, limited communication, mountains of paperwork).

As an R&D leader, to increase the desire to produce creative outputs, make work inner-rewarding. Unfortunately, a huge snag exists; research has shown that external motivators easily overwhelm and replace inner motivators. In other words, when R&D leaders externally reward or punish people for creative activities that usually depend on internal self-motivation, the motivator shifts to the outside reward or punishment, and inner motivation declines. Thus, while R&D productivity on routine approved projects may rise, self-motivated creative outputs fall.

Paradoxically, external rewards that provide positive feedback on competence leads to high self-motivation, but not if people perceive the feedback as manipulative or controlling. Continual exposure to controlling rewards and negative information about competence lowers the desire to produce creative work because it spoils people’s self-motivation.

The same applies to praise. If a person perceives praise as feedback on competence, then praise increases inner motivation. However, if the person perceives praise as a reward, and then works to get the reward, resentment increases and creative output declines because self-motivation drops.

So remember: external rewards have this dual effect. They can provide positive feedback about a person’s competence and increase self-motivation for creative outcomes. Or they can control behavior and lower self-motivation, thereby spoiling creative work.

Still, self-motivation and creative output can increase if you focus on the daily enjoyment in the work itself, instead of on getting the reward.

Probably you, as R&D leader, don’t think of many rewards except salary, bonuses, and promotion at work. Still, inner rewards exist in almost any situation: provide clear feedback; make sure the work has a broad range of choices and challenges; delegate effectively and expect self-direction. If you do this, any activity becomes enjoyable and internally rewarding.

Even though external rewards lower performance on interesting tasks, such as solving problems creatively, the same external rewards improve performance on routine, mundane tasks. Indeed, you may need external rewards, even coercion, to get people to do certain jobs. But the more you build self-satisfaction into boring activities, the more people stay self-motivated, creative, and productive at work.


Before my workshop on creative thinking triggers, I ask participants to fill out a questionnaire so I can fine-tune the workshop to their specific needs.

About 450 people in R&D, marketing, and manufacturing in six Fortune-500 companies responded. To appreciate their answer to one question, please write your response before reading further:

“When I am creating, I feel…”

Almost all respondents said they had good feelings. They used words like excited, fulfilled, joyful, good, enthusiastic, insightful, stimulated, enjoyable, intense, fun, happy, delighted; they wrote staying creative made them feel good, satisfied, useful, energetic, alert; other answers included challenged, worthwhile, energized. Less than 3% listed negative feelings, such as feeling anxious, frustrated, timid, stressed, disturbed, bothered, mainly because of anticipated negative reactions from colleagues.

Learn from these comments to lead your R&D team more effectively. First, encourage enjoyment and satisfaction in work to help people stay creative as problem solvers on the job and boost creative outcomes.

Second, use the sheer enjoyment of creative thinking to provide an inner reward for your R&D people to stay creative. Help people focus their daily work on the instant enjoyment and fun inherent in creative thinking.

One manager told me about an R&D leader who greeted his people with: “Are you having fun today?” If they answered yes, he asked them to share the fun with him. If they answered no, he asked what he could do to help them have fun.

Use the approach: “Are you having fun today?” to focus people on their inner motivators and the desire to stay creative: the good feelings, the enjoyment and the fun that people report feeling when they create.

So if you want to stimulate creative work, stop distracting the attention of your R&D work unit with long-range external motivators, like salary raises and bonuses and promotion. Of course, you cannot do away with these rewards. But you can help people focus the daily work on the instant enjoyment inherent in creative thinking.



Self-motivation fuels creative work, while outside motivators sink it. Factors that help productivity usually spoil creative effort, including offers of rewards, expected evaluation, imposed deadlines, and other conditions that common wisdom proclaims helps and benefits performance.

Some research supports this notion (see “The Social Psychology Of Creative Thinking” by T. Amabile; and “Creativity In The R&D Laboratory” by T. Amabile & S. Gryskiewicz; and “Managing For Creativity: Back To Basics In R&D” by E. Glassman, in R&D Management: Volume 16, Issue 2, April 1986: Pages 175-183.

This research shows…

• A high interest in an activity improves creative outcomes.

• Focusing on inner reasons (enjoyment) to do something helps creative thinking, while focusing interest on outside reasons spoils creative thinking.

• Doing an activity for its own sake (fun, enjoyment, elation, pleasure) helps creative thinking, while doing something to accomplish an outside goal spoils creative thinking.

  • Creative thinking spoils when people focus on expected evaluation, a reward that depends on performance, supervision, lack of choice to do something or how to do it, or imposed deadlines.
  • Creative thinking increases when self-motivation rises due to the enjoyment that comes with choices, no obvious intrusions, no expectation of evaluation, and no supervision by watchers.

The outside motivators shown to spoil creative outcomes include:

• Focusing on external rewards rather than on inner rewards: the enjoyment and fun at work.

• Thinking about outside reasons (rewards and punishments) for doing an activity.

• Evaluation, or even expecting evaluation.

• Reduced choice of what to do and how to carry it out.

• Watched while performing an activity.

Expecting an attractive reward for good performance.

Externally imposed deadlines and time constraints.

As an R&D leader, help your work group self-motivate for creative work. Try this:

• Match the activity to worker interest and involvement.

• Encourage self-direction.

• Stress inner reasons for doing things (daily enjoyment, joy, fun, excitement, pleasure).

• Help people reduce the feelings (resentment, fear) generated by visible external constraints.

• Offer some free choice about whether or how to do an assignment.

• Avoid obvious intrusions and minimize performance evaluations.

Make work self-rewarding so it increases the desire to produce creative outcomes.


Much research shows that people turn out work more creative and solve problems more creatively if they focus their attention on their daily enjoyment and the challenges of the work.

As an R&D leader, encourage your work group to achieve high levels of creative output: help them perceive the novelty in the work, their own self-competence and self-direction, and the sense they engage in play rather than work. Help them feel that they work for their own satisfaction on a self-discovered problem in which they have many choices, especially in how to do the work. For creative work to flourish, help them feel a lot of curiosity and interest.

If you want the people in your R&D team to increase creative output, do not distract them from these sources of self-motivation. Do not dangle external motivators in front of them on a daily basis. Instead focus their daily attention, and yours too, on inner motivators: the daily enjoyment due to the novelty and challenges of the work, their sense of competence, self-direction, and satisfaction.

Give them as many choices as you can, especially in how to achieve goals. Provide job stability to encourage risk taking, the core of creative enterprise at work. Allow them to feel they engage in play rather than work. Encourage self-evaluation, self-direction, and self-satisfaction at work.

Allow R&D people to focus on their inner motivators, not on outside motivators. They all want salary raises, promotions, and honors, all important rewards. The R&D people in your work group must accomplish your goals, meet deadlines, get positive performance appraisals, and obtain the good will of others. They do work for your satisfaction. Yet, these outside motivators spoil creative enterprise by overwhelming inner motivators: the daily enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction of the work, the elation that comes from achieving self-determined goals.

Help creative thinking by focusing R&D people’s attention on these inner motivators. Help people in your work group become self directed by adjusting your leadership style and watch creative work take off in your work group.


Research has shown that R&D people solve problems in a more creative way and turn out work with more creative surprises, if they focus their attention on their daily enjoyment and fun that comes from the challenge, and their total immersion in the work (sometimes called trancing out).

For high levels of creative output, people need to feel they engage in play, rather than work. They need to have a sense that they work for their own satisfaction on a self-discovered problem in which they have considerable choices, especially in how to accomplish goals. For creative thinking to flourish, they need to have high stability of employment to help shift paradigms and take risks.

You may find it difficult to provide these conditions at work. Most people wait for the organization to provide the ideal workplace that never appears. Do not allow your R&D team to wait.

Help them immunize themselves against the spoilers of creative thinking: the distractions, the external reward and punishment systems, evaluation and time pressures, competition with others, high control by others, and restricted choices. Keep their focus on their daily enjoyment, the challenge, and their sense of competence about the work. Nurture the creative flame within them by focusing attention on their inner motivators now.

They all need rewards: salary raises, bonuses, promotions, other awards and honors. They have to achieve your goals, meet deadlines, get positive performance evaluations, and obtain approval of others. Indeed, they do work for your satisfaction.

Yet, these outside motivators spoil daily creative output by overwhelming inner motivation: the daily enjoyment of creative effort. Help their creative thinking by focusing attention on inner motivators. Immunize now. Allow them to become as self directed as the work allows, and watch their creative output soar.

And checkout my book: “CREATIVITY TRIGGERS ARE FOR EVERYONE: How To Use Your Inventiveness To Brighten Your Life.CLICK here AND HERE.

©2017 by Edward Glassman, Ph.D.


His book: “Team Creativity At Work I & II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best,” is available: CLICK here AND HERE.

His book: “R&D CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION HANDBOOK: A Practical Guide To Improve Creative Thinking and Innovation Success At Work” is also available.   CLICK here  AND HERE

Ed Glassman, Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founded the Program For Team Excellence And Creativity at the university. He led scores of problem-solving creativity meetings and creative thinking workshops-seminars for many large and small companies. He was a ‘Guggenheim Foundation Fellow’ at Stanford University, a ‘Visiting Fellow’ at the ‘Center For Creative Leadership’ in Greensboro, NC, a Visiting Professor at the University Of California at Irvine, and a Visiting Scientist at SRI International.

About the Author
Ed Glassman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus and former head of the "Program for Team Effectiveness and Creativity," in the medical school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was also a visiting fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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