Friday, March 6, 2020

Career-driven workers focused on promotion may unwittingly hold themselves back with a “creativity tax” they pay through concern for their family’s well-being, a new study from the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business finds.

The study suggests that workers who are motivated by their family are often more productive but also less creative, as their workplace motivation changes from career development to providing for their family.

“They become more risk averse in their work because they don’t want to do something that might lead to losing their job, making it harder to care for their family,” says Ning Li, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship in the Tippie College and study co-author.

In surveys and interviews with more than 660 workers of various wages and skills, researchers asked about motivations, goals, and workplace relationships. They found consistently, with both blue-collar factory workers and white-collar professionals, that those with a mindset that work supports their family tended to see their jobs mostly as a means to an end and were less likely to take risks that could potentially upset management. Workers whose primary motivation goes beyond their families, on the other hand, were more willing to be creative by tolerating higher levels of uncertainty and focusing more on long-term returns that they think might push their careers forward.

The findings augment past studies that have found family motivation leads to an energizing effect on employee productivity, as workers and their managers in the study reported no reduction in productivity due to family considerations. The authors believe this is a result of what they call a “meaningfulness detachment,” in which workers see a job less as a vehicle for personal growth and achievement and instead emphasize how much money they’ll make. It also leads to risk aversion, or a “creativity tax,” that has the potential to slow a worker’s career advancement.

The study shows that while these effects are significant across genders, women are more apt to be triggered by family motivations.

Amy Colbert, professor of management and entrepreneurship in the Tippie College and study co-author, says management can help workers stay creative by minimizing their perceptions about the uncertainty of creativity. She says managers should actively ask employees for their suggestions and ideas, and provide positive feedback and recognition even if their creative efforts fail.

The study, “Playing it Safe for My Family,” was co-authored by Huiyao Liao of the University of Iowa and Xin-an Zhang of Shanghai Jiaotong University, and was published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Media contact: Tom Snee,, 319-541-8434