why ants can never be creative: teamwork can kill creativity

March 11, 2014

by william choukeir

teamwork kills creativity

you’ve watched ants at work. you’ve seen them collaborating as a unified entity. a feat of teamwork that’s remarkable. ants are social insects. because of this social aspect, ants and productivity could be synonyms.

us humans are social too. we have an intrinsic need to belong[1]. however, another need could be even more powerful in certain situations: the need to individuate—to be unique[2]. with a strategic mindset-switch between belonging and individuality, we can hack our intrinsic needs to our benefits.

three revolutionary studies show that the need to belong drives productivity, while the need to individuate drives creativity[3]—an advantage we have over ants.

so, if the individuality mindset boosts creativity, does a belonging mindset kill it?

people who value belonging over individuality work collectively to support the group. motivated by their need to be accepted, they abide by the status quo. they refrain from sharing original thoughts in fear of getting rejected[4]. creativity is the combination of ideas that are both new and useful. because of this, a belonging mindset leads to less novel ideas and thus fewer creative outcomes. the upside is improved productivity because group members are working towards a unified outcome.

on the other hand, those who value individuality over belonging live by their own rules in a  world that demands conformity[3]. they rarely exert effort to gain acceptance. instead, they focus their energies on producing novel ideas that challenge the status quo. their motivation to set themselves apart from the rest leads to more creative outcomes[6]. however, when it’s time to execute, productivity suffers relative to teamwork[3]. unless they leverage the increased productivity of teams. hence, a belonging mindset is more likely to kill creativity, but here’s how to hack this to our benefit.

here’s the most valuable insight from these studies. let’s consider a group of people that value belonging over individuality. there’s a way to influence (prime) each person in this group to value individuality instead[3]. those influenced proved to be as creative as of those who naturally value individuality[3].

whether you’re a creative or lead a creative team, your best strategy is to first stimulate the need to be unique to boost creativity. then, to execute the idea, you switch tactics by stimulating the need to belong.

how you prime (influence) for either creativity or productivity is a world of its own, but here’s a practical way to get you started.

to boost creativity, follow these steps:

  1. prime the need to individuate using stories and videos that celebrate the individual and focus on the ‘I’, ‘my’, and ‘mine’. use these pronouns in your communication with team members. encourage non-conformity and embrace uniqueness.
  2. create a context where a creative feels separate from the group. exclude this individual from team efforts. encourage individual work and competition amongst creatives.
  3. after the creative phase, celebrate the individual. this rewards and reinforces individuality. it motivates individuals for future individual projects.

to boost productivity, follow these steps:

  1. prime the need to belong by using stories and videos that celebrate collaborative efforts and focus on the ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘our’. use these pronouns to encourage conformity.
  2. create a context where all team members feel that they belong to one group. encourage teamwork, accept and involve all individuals relevant to the project. frown upon competition and individual achievements. all achievements belong to the group.
  3. after the productive phase, celebrate the collective achievements of the team. this reinforces the feeling of belonging. it motivates the whole team for future collaborative projects.

ants outnumber humans a million to one[7]. they would rule the world if they could strategically switch mindsets between creativity and productivity.

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•1 Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
•2 Brewer, M. B. (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 475- 482.
•3 Kim, S. H., Vincent, L. C., & Goncalo, J. A. (2012). Outside advantage: Can social rejection fuel creative thought? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. 10.1037/a0029728
•4 Knowles, M. L., & Gardner, W. L. (2008). Benefits of membership: The activation and amplification of group identities in response to social rejection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1200-1213.
•5 Amabile, T. M. (1983). The Social Psychology of Creativity. New York: Springer-Verlag.
•6 Sharkey, W. & Singelis, T. (1995). Embarrassability and self-construal: a theoretical integration. Personality and Individual Differences, 19, 919-926.
•7 Holldobler, B & E. O. Wilson (2009). The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 5. ISBN 0-393-06704-1.

2 Responses to “why ants can never be creative: teamwork can kill creativity”

  1. great read

  2. Thank you Naim! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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