Does high stress trigger creativity at work?

Commentator Teresa Amabile says high stress doesn't really trigger creativity at work.

Ask people how they feel about deadlines and you'll hear, "I hate them" or "I can't live without them." But quite often, it's both. So, what's the deal? My research team and I discovered the source of that ambivalence. On days with looming deadlines, people can feel both jazzed about their work and highly frustrated by distractions.

In most workplaces, extreme time pressure usually goes hand in hand with interruptions and distractions -- creating a "treadmill effect," where people feel like they're running all day, juggling loads of unexpected tasks, and unable to get to their most important work. And yet, some people still say they actually feel more creative as time pressure rises.

But are they really? We found that on days of the most extreme time pressure, the professionals in our study were 45 percent less likely to come up with a new idea or solve a complex problem. Even worse, there's a kind of "pressure hangover," with lower creativity persisting for two days or more.

I know you're probably sure that you've done great work under extreme deadlines. And you probably have. We did find some creativity under high pressure, but the enabling circumstances are rare in most workplaces: People have to feel that they are on a mission to tackle something crucial -- and they have to be protected from interruptions and extraneous demands.

So if you have to tackle a complex problem in a pressure-cooker situation -- hide somewhere with minimal distractions, like a seldom-used conference room, or the coffee shop around the corner. Focus. Don't let other demands get in the way. And, through it all, keep sight of the importance of the mission at hand. If you're a procrastinator, maybe the most important change you can make is an attitude adjustment. You might be convinced that extreme time pressure is the only way to get brilliant work done because you've never actually tried it any other way. The fact is, when you work under the gun, creativity is usually the first casualty.

About the author

Teresa Amabile is a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of "The Progress Principle."

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