Creativity has become a management buzzword. Everybody wants it—creativity was named the most crucial factor in determining future success in IBM's Global CEO Study from 2010, which queried 1,500 CEOs from about 60 countries. It's the secret sauce that separates the Apple Macintosh from the Commodore 64. Without it there'd be no iPhone, Human Genome Project, or career of Malcolm Gladwell.
The problem is that creativity is hard to qualify. "Creativity is this skill that everybody cares a lot about, but we don't actually know a whole lot about it empirically," says Sharon Kim, an assistant professor at the Carey Business School. "From a business perspective, I think what makes it a valued skill is that it's the precursor to innovation, and that also it can be very helpful in problem-solving situations." She continues, "But there's a lot of mythology that surrounds it. My platform of research is going through and picking these things that pique my interest and then testing them empirically."
In her 2012 paper "Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought?" Kim and her co-authors (Jack Goncalo and Lynne Vincent) began with the anecdotal assumption that creative types are outsiders who feel isolated from the norm. "We were inspired by what we felt was a persistent theme in the press, where we kept hearing about people who spoke about their previous experiences with social rejection as being fodder for future creativity," Kim says. "I think this was something that resonated with the three of us personally as well, just sort of feeling always a little bit different from other people."
In a series of three psychological tests, Kim and her co-authors subjected undergraduates to a rejection experience (such as informing them they weren't going to be chosen for an activity) and then gave them a cognitive exercise, such as a Remote Associates Test, wherein they must provide a word that unites three seemingly unrelated words. A self-construal variable—how individuals perceive their place in the surrounding world—and structured imagination assessments were added to the second and third runs of the study, respectively, to explore how feelings of both independence and rejection relate to creativity and cognitive ability. What they found is that independently minded participants performed more creatively than their counterparts who had been included in the group.
Their results proved the anecdotal understanding that, as they write in their paper, social "rejection is not merely a byproduct of the fact that creative people can be unconventional but that the experience itself may promote creativity." That's not to say that ostracizing employees is the way to incubate creativity, or that all outsiders are inherently creative people. Rather, the outsider's perspective can be what enables a person to thrive and succeed.
"I think the hero in this story is independence," Kim says. "That is something that people don't talk about often, the benefits of being different. I think as a society we're more tolerant in many ways, but I still feel that there's a strong pressure to conform. And I think that identifying the ways in which being independent can foster creativity is important."