Unleashing creativity in teams

With rapid technological development and intense global competition, the ability to innovate is imperative (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2017).

Many researchers have argued that team diversity is a key driver of team creativity, as combining different ideas and perspectives can help generate novel solutions (Hoever et al. 2012; Milliken & Martins, 1996). Studies of team diversity and creativity have often explored the effects of readily detected diversity attributes, such as age, educational or functional diversity. But what happens when we work with people from similar functional or educational backgrounds? Can ’seemingly homogenous‘ teams still be creative?

Dr. Wang (University of China), Dr. Kim (China Europe International Business School) and Dr. Lee (Seowon University) explored this question by looking at cognitive diversity.

Researchers have started to focus on cognitive diversity as a ‘deeper level’ diversity, referring to differences in thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values and ideas. In line with prior research, Wang, Kim and Lee argue that cognitive diversity promotes creativity even in teams whose members have similar educational and functional backgrounds. Critically, they identify the role of leadership in unleashing cognitive diversity.


To explore why, when, and how team cognitive diversity contributes to team creativity. In particular, whether transformational leadership is a key factor influencing the positiveeffect of cognitive diversity on team creativity, due to its ability to increase team members’ intrinsic motivation – the motivation to complete a task because it is “interesting, challenging and satisfying”.


Survey data was collected from leaders and their team members in 62 R&D teams across 14 organisations in South Korea. Team leaders evaluated ‘team creativity’, and team members’ evaluated ‘Cognitive diversity’, ‘transformational leadership’ and ‘team intrinsic motivation’. For example:

  • To what extent do the members of the group differ in their knowledge and skills?
  • My leader emphasises the importance of having a collective sense of mission
  • Our team enjoys finding solutions to complex problems
  • How well does your team produce new ideas?


The research revealed that intrinsic motivation was the mechanism driving the positive relationship between cognitive diversity and team creativity, and that this relationship increased when transformational leadership was high. This was supported by three key findings: 

  1. Cognitive diversity is positively related to team creativity: This result aligned with past findings that exposure to different perspectives encourages more innovative ideas.
  2. Intrinsic motivation is the mechanism underlying the positive relationship between cognitive diversity and team creativity:This result highlighted the importance of having intrinsically motivated employees in cognitively diverse teams. Intrinsic motivation contributes to creativity, as intrinsically motivated team members are more likely to be engaged, and to openly exchange or play with different ideas.
  3. Transformational leadership is a catalyst facilitating the development of team intrinsic motivation in cognitively diverse teams: This result showed that transformational leadership was a “boundary condition” for the effects of cognitive diversity on team intrinsic motivation, which in turn positively impacted team creativity. Considering the potential for diversity to result in both positive and negative team outcomes, this finding illustrates the important role transformational leadership plays in shaping the impact cognitive diversity has on team outcomes. 

In fact, according to the authors, dimensions of transformational leadership can positively impact the relationship between cognitive diversity and team intrinsic motivation in three key ways:

  • Firstly, transformational leaders instill idealised influence and inspirational motivation by communicating a strong collective vision, to unify team members;
  • Secondly, transformational leaders intellectually stimulatetheir followers, encouraging them to question their assumptions, reframe problems and think outside the box, and;
  • Finally, transformational leaders encourage followers to express their unique ideas through individualised consideration, which helps them to appreciate and build upon each-others perspectives.


Organisations seeking to improve team creativity and innovation need not invest exclusively in building teams that are functionally or educationally diverse. Rather, this research suggests that managers consider the cognitive attributes of team members, and leverage varied problem solving styles, abilities and ideas to drive team creativity.

Furthermore, this research underscores the value in recruiting, retaining and developing transformational leaders. The absence of transformational leadership behaviours may cause tension and diminish a team’s ability to be creative while the demonstration of such behaviours can serve to unleash creativity in cognitively diverse teams. More practically, all leaders should consider the importance of three key behaviours:

  • Communication: Articulate and communicate a shared group vision
  • Challenge: Encourage team members to challenge their own assumptions
  • Psychological Safety: Ensure team members feel safe to express their unique ideas and opinions

These transformational leadership behaviours are catalysts to increasing intrinsic motivation and in turn, are central to the realisation of team creativity.

To read the full article, see Wang, X.-F. (F.)., Kim, T.-Y., & Lee, D. R. (2016). Cognitive diversity and team creativity: Effects of team intrinsic motivation and transformational leadership. Journal of Business Research, 69(9), 3231-3239

For more information please contact Sarah Sgroi


Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2017). Does Diversity Actually Increase Creativity?, Harvard Business Review, 28 June 2017, < https://hbr.org/2017/06/does-diversity-actually-increase-creativity>

Hoever et al. (2012). Fostering team creativity: Perspective taking as key to unlocking diversity’s potential. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(5)

Milliken, F., & Martins, L. (1996). Searching for common threads: Understanding the multiple effects of diversity in organizational groups. Academy of Management Journal, 21,402-433.

Want to stay up-to-date?

Stay on trend and in the know when you sign up for our latest content