Seeking help from others gets us to more creative solutions, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology. However, there's a rub: being a help-giver may impede creatively solving your own problems, and seeking and helping turn out to be intimately related.
In a collaboration between the Indian School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania, Jennifer Mueller and Dishan Kamdar surveyed engineers at a refinery in central India, who work in teams that try to find creative ways to improve operations. The 291 mainly male participants assessed themselves on help-seeking by rating items like “I frequently ask team-mates for assistance in creative problem solving”. They also completed a complementary measure of help-giving, together with measures of motivation and a control measure of 'creative personality'.
The study found that individuals who sought more help were rated as more creative by their team leaders. The investigators suggest two reasons for this. Firstly, help-seekers receive new information to form a broader base to construct solutions from. Perhaps more importantly, seeking help requires you accept that you don't have all the answers, making you more open to new perspectives. As such, it wards off that major obstacle to creativity: locking into a 'perceptual set' that obscures any alternative view.
The authors felt that help seeking might shed some light on an issue in creativity research: whether being intrinsically motivated to solve a problem leads to more creative solutions. They felt that rather than firing up some creative centre, motivation might operate by making you do something you wouldn't otherwise: admit your limitations by seeking some help. And the data corroborates this, suggesting creativity is enhanced by motivation partly through an increase in help-seeking.
So far, so good. But the research found that people who received help tended to reciprocate it back on other occasions, and, crucially, that giving more help was associated with a cost to creativity. Why? Well, working on others' problems may restrict the time available for your own, and we know that creativity suffers under high time pressure. The authors also suspect an attitude shift: just as the help seeker humbly surrenders their suppositions, the help provider can be flattered into believing their perspective is objectively better, reinforcing fixed ways of thinking.
On balance, help-seeking did lead to more creativity, even when the reciprocal demands were high; a culture of help is ultimately superior to a lone-wolf one. Organisations may want to think about ways to inoculate their members against putting their viewpoint on a pedestal, even when others seem to value it. And help-seekers may want to ensure that their requests don't swamp an accommodating help-giver. Yet we have to face facts: for creative help-seeking to flourish, that help needs to come from someone prepared to pay the cost.
Mueller, J., & Kamdar, D. (2011). Why seeking help from teammates is a blessing and a curse: A theory of help seeking and individual creativity in team contexts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (2), 263-276 DOI: 10.1037/a0021574