Don’t neglect the social rejects in the organization — those individuals nobody chooses to work with. They may be essential drivers of innovation.
In fact, social rejection can actually boost creativity, according to an October 2012 study by researchers from Cornell and Johns Hopkins universities. Those with a greater sense of independent self-concept feel a sense of uniqueness when they experience social rejection, in turn bolstering their creative output, said Jack A. Goncalo, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell.
“Most studies show that rejection is just bad, bad, bad — that it does all these negative things to people,” said Goncalo, also one of the co-authors of the study, “Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought?” “But I think if you have the right mindset, you can profit from it.”
Goncalo said the idea came to light through an assignment he gave students as part of a course on managing creativity. The assignment called for students to analyze behaviors of those considered “highly creative,” and as the students presented their findings, one of the things that kept coming up was the idea that highly creative people view themselves as misfits or rejects.
Despite most of the research on social rejection being negative, Goncalo said he and the other researchers wanted to see if those with an independent mindset prospered creatively after social rejection — while those with the mindset of togetherness struggled.
To test this, students picked to participate in a lab study were told a week in advance that they would be working on a special project as part of a group. They were also provided with short profiles of the other team members. Each was asked to provide a preference of whom they would like to work with on the task.
The second part of the experiment sought to control each individual’s sense of self. Once the week had passed, they asked each of the lab students to complete what Goncalo called the pronoun-circling task, which he said is typically given in behavioral studies to control a subject’s frame of mind.
One task asked a group of students to read a story about a person on vacation alone and circle all the singular references, such as “I,” “me” or “myself.” Another group did the same, but this time the story was about someone on a vacation with a group. They were asked to circle group references such as “we.”
Goncalo said those who participated in the former come out of it thinking more independently, while those in the latter are more group minded.
When it came time to work on the project, the lab students then were told that nobody chose to work with them — they were socially rejected. Instead, the students were told that they would have to go into a room by themselves and work on a separate task designed to measure creative problem solving.
In the end, the researchers’ original theory proved correct: The highest number of creative problem solvers came from the group that was both independent minded and had experienced social rejection. Those who were put under the group mindset, in turn, were less efficient at the creative problem-solving task after experiencing social rejection.
Still, the theory may not apply to everyone.
“It’s not as if rejection makes everyone creative,” Goncalo said. “It really depends on who you are and how you think.”
Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.