Ideas for Leaders #578

How Creativity Starts With Respectful Engagement

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Key Concept

There are a wide variety of methodologies and concepts for developing individual and team creativity in organizations. New research, however, reveals the unexpected foundation of organizational creativity: respectful relationships.

Idea Summary

Intuitively, respectful relationships and creativity are assets of a successful company. Respectful relationships lead to more effective collaboration, while creativity leads to new, competitive ideas.

Business leaders might not realize, however, the link between these two attributes. Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business have shown, through a series of four studies, that respectful engagement (or RE) among colleagues leads to better relational informational processing (RIP), which in turn leads to more creative individual and team behaviours.

Respectful engagement refers, as the name implies, to engaging with others in a respectful manner. RE includes recognizing the existence and importance of other people; communicating the positive regard that you have for the others, the fact that you understand and appreciate them; listening carefully and empathetically to other people; when communicating with others, emphasizing their good qualities; and making requests, not demands.

The elements of respect, appreciation and gratitude in respectful engagement not only reinforce the connection among people, but also make collaborative or team efforts more resilient and adaptive. With RE as a foundation, people are not reactive or negative in the face of setbacks or changing circumstances, but instead come together and through open conversations develop the resolutions to the problems.

In sum, RE motivates and builds the capacity to engage in what researchers call relationship information processing or RIP. RIP is the process of reflecting through conversation — using conversation with others to reflect on your goals and your work, and specifically on what has been done, why and how.

Unlike self-reflection, RIP is social behaviour, involving others in the reflection. Another key attribute of RIP is that it is active. People will often adjust their behaviours after passively watching for cues in the reactions of their colleagues or bosses; with RIP, people actively seek out reactions from others.

Thus, people must be motivated to engage in RIP. Respectful engagement builds that motivation. People who genuinely recognize, accept and affirm each other will be more motivated to engage in conversations that reflect on the what, why and how, that is, on the tasks, processes and goals of work.

RIP, or reflective conversations about work, has in turn an important impact on the creativity of the group. The reason is two-fold. First, through open conversations, people have an opportunity to access and build on each others’ unique perspectives and expertise. Pooled together, these unique perspectives and expertise can inspire and generate novel ideas about a company’s products, services and processes.

The second reason RIP enhances creativity is through mindfulness, that is, a much greater awareness of the present, of what’s currently happening in one’s environment. By being mindful, people are exposed to more ideas. They have more opportunities to see new perspectives, or to combine different perspectives into novel ideas.

In sum, respectful engagement, which creates a positive work environment in which people respect each other, enables reflective conversations (RIP) among people, which in turn leads to greater creativity.

The researchers demonstrated this process through four surveys with, respectively: 230 part-time business students, 150 full-time employees (specifically, technicians in a service company), top management teams from 500 organizations, and 250 full-time employees at a university. The researchers explored the correlations between RE, RIP and creativity using rigorously tested survey items, including the nine RE items and three RIP items they developed in a pilot study as well as a four-item creativity scale developed by previous researchers.

There are, of course, a number of different factors involved in work relationships, such as trust, collaboration, psychological safety, task conflict and leader-subordinate mutual respect. Through their statistical analyses, the researchers incorporated these factors in their results; in other words, they measured the influence of RE on RIP and through RIP on creativity above and beyond the influence of factors such as trust or collaboration or psychological safety. 

In conclusion, in-depth analyses of the survey results unequivocally demonstrated:

  • The link between RE and RIP
  • The positive association between RIP and creativity in both individuals and (for one study) teams
  • The mediation role that RIP plays between RE and creativity.

Business Application

In theory, respectful engagement among peers and between managers and employees might seem attainable with some effort and good will, but under the pressure of the real world, RE takes hard work. Companies must not only create a culture of respect and trust, but also encourage and enable active engagement among employees and teams. Creative ideas will emerge from these open, exploratory conversations. Taking advantage of the forces described in this study thus requires a two-pronged effort from organizations:

  • Ensure that organizational members are attentive to and recognize the value of others.
  • Enable wide-ranging, open conversations that encourage honest reflection on the present and explore different perspectives for new ideas.

Respect can be the ‘engine for new ideas’ in an organization that is vigilant and proactive in maintaining positive, active relationships among all employees, managers and leaders.

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Idea conceived

  • January 2015

Idea posted

  • January 2016

DOI number



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