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Updated 11:00 AM June 30, 2008




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Mixed backgrounds improve organizational innovation, creativity

Like Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and millions of Americans, researcher Fiona Lee comes from a mixed cultural background. She is an Asian-American who was born in Europe, grew up in Hong Kong and settled in the United States. Like her cultural background, Lee's research also crosses a mixture of disciplines: psychology, business and organizational behavior.

Most people, she says, in one way or another, have multiple identities or mixed backgrounds and experiences of some sort. In new research, Lee and colleagues from U-M and Singapore Management University show when workers integrate and draw upon those different aspects of their backgrounds, they are more creative at work. Having mixed racial, cultural or professional backgrounds can be an important asset.

"Increasing creativity and innovation at work is a Holy Grail for organizations," says Lee, a professor of psychology and business administration. "Companies that have the ability to bring together people from diverse backgrounds and draw upon all of their insights and experiences will have a distinct advantage in the global market place."

Identity integration — the ability of individuals to draw on their mixed backgrounds — can lead to enhanced creative performance, according to several studies done by Lee, U-M business researcher Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Chi-Ying Cheng of Singapore Management University.

The researchers conducted two studies involving people with mixed backgrounds and a third study looking at faculty specializing in multiple disciplines. The first study asked Asian-Americans to design a dish containing both Asian and American ingredients, the second study asked female engineers to design a new mobile communication device specifically for women and a third study examined the publications of faculty members with two disciplinary affiliations.

In all cases the subjects who are better able to draw on their mixed backgrounds at the same time were more creative than those who can only draw on one of their backgrounds at a time. They designed more creative dishes, came up with better communication devices and published higher-impact papers. In contrast, Asian-Americans who feel that they have to turn off their Asian background in an American setting or female engineers who believe that they have to less feminine to be effective at work have a harder time drawing on their mixed backgrounds to produce innovative and creative solutions.

They say the ability to draw on a mixed background can be increased when individuals focus on the positive experiences related to that experience. A diverse work force can enhance its creativity through this process, they say. For example, if individuals with a mixed race heritage like Obama can dwell on the compatibilities rather than conflicts between blacks and whites, they may be able to come up with more creative solutions to race-based issues.

"Our findings have implications for understanding the ways creativity can be increased in different applied settings," Sanchez-Burks says. "They show that the management of multiple social identities has theoretical implications for understanding the psychology of creativity and practical implications for increasing individuals' capacity for creativity and innovation."

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