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Mixed Backgrounds Improve Organizational Innovation, Creativity

6/30/2008 --

New research from the Ross School of Business supports the push toward a demographically diverse work force.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Like Barack Obama and millions of Americans, Ross School professor Fiona Lee (pictured at right) 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.

Lee's research also crosses a mixture of disciplines: psychology, business and organizational behavior.

She notes that most people, in one way or another, have "multiple identities" or mixed backgrounds or experiences of some sort. In new research, Lee and Ross colleague Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Chi-Ying Cheng of 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, the researchers contend.

"Increasing creativity and innovation at work is a holy grail for organizations," said Lee, associate professor of management and organizations and associate professor of psychology. "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 marketplace."

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, Sanchez-Burks and Cheng.

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 the 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 are 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, female engineers who believe that they have to be less feminine to be effective at work, or researchers who feel torn between their disciplinary affiliations have a harder time drawing on their mixed backgrounds to produce innovative and creative solutions.

Lee and her colleagues say that people's ability to draw on their mixed background can be increased when individuals focus on the positive experiences related to being "mixed." A diverse work force can enhance its creativity through this process, they argue. For example, if women in male-dominated professions focus on the compatibility of their gender and professional identities—rather than the hardships and struggles of being a minority member—they may be better able to draw on their mixed backgrounds to achieve higher levels of creativity.

Or if individuals with a mixed race heritage like Obama can dwell on the compatibilities rather than conflicts between African Americans 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 said. "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."

For a copy of their study, click here.

Written by Joe Serwach

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu