If What You Want is not What You Get: A Communication‐Based Approach to Top Managers' Intended Firm Creativity and Employees' Failure to Deliver

Author:Sonja Sperber, Christian Linder
Publication Date:01 Sep 2017
If What You Want is not What You Get: A
Communication-Based Approach to Top
ManagersIntended Firm Creativity and
EmployeesFailure to Deliver
Faculty of Economics and Management, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Bolzano, Italy
International School of Management, ISM CampusFrankfurt/Main, Germany
There often exists a gap between the level of creativity aimed for by the companys top managers and the level
actually realized. In this article, we draw on Speech Act Theory and the Jakobsonian model of communication to
investigate the reasons for this gap. We identify the top managerial as well as organizational conditions that shape
and determine the way in which actors interpret information. By means of configuration analysis, we identify eight
distinct configurations, which represent stable paths to reach the top managersintended level of firm creativity. As
the main contribution of this paper, we explain the reasons for the distance between the intended firm creativity by
the top managers and the actually realized creative solutions by the workforce. This paper makes a further
contribution to the interpretive approach in creativity management by highlightingthe importance of speech acts.
Keywords: top manager; creativity; communication theory; communication effectiveness; absorptive capacity
In the past, many studies have focused on investigating
the influence of the companysleaders,attop
management level, on various aspects of organizational
life. For instance, aspects concerning the strategic focus
(e.g., Deniset al., 1996; Kor, 2006), new product launches
to the market (e.g., Eisenhardt and Tabrizi, 1995),and the
organizations cultural setting (e.g., Bass and Avolio,
1994; Jung and Takeuchi, 2010). Even though the focus
during previous years has continuously shifted towards
an inclusive view of the workforce within managerial
tasks, as for example in participative leadership (e.g.,
Somech, 2006; Lam et al., 2015), the companystop
managers are still recognized as the essential influencing
force in organizational concerns. This important influence
specifically affects organizational creativity and the
execution of activities concerning innovation, and hence
the firms overall innovativeness (Bantel and Jackson,
1989; Carpenter et al., 2004; Elenkov et al., 2005;
Ireland andHitt, 1999). Thus, as the organizational leaders
are viewed as essential shapers and influencers of
organizational operations, including those of creativity,
they hold significant power in shaping the organization.
However, despite the recognized significant impact of
the organizational leaders on creativity, both researchers
and practitioners have continued to recognize that often
there is a gap between the creativity aimed for by the
companys top managers (TMs)and the creativity actually
realized, which eventually leads to a missing congruence
of the two levels of creativity. In this respect, TMs
initiatives to foster and promote creativity, which we
generally define as a constellation of personality and
intellectual traits shown by individuals who, when given
a measure of free rein, spend significant amounts of time
in engaged in the creativeprocess(Findlay and Lumsden,
1988: 85), often are inconclusive and fail to result in the
intended outcome. This occurring distance is what we
refer to the gapbetween the intended level of creativity
by the top managerial layers of an organization and the
realized level on the employeesside. This outcome
ultimately provokes the question as to why the TMs
attempt to foster creat ivity fails to reach i ts expectations
and intended outcomes. In this context, Shalley and
Correspondence:Christian Linder,Faculty of Economicsand Management,
Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Piazza Università 5, 39100 Bolzano,
Italy. Tel:+39(0)471/01330. E-mailchristian.linder@unibz.it
European Management Review, Vol. 14, 227246, (2017)
DOI: 10.1111/emre.12104
©2017 European Academy of Management
Gilson (2004) point out that most TMs indeed want their
employees to be more creative, but most of these leaders
fail to understand what causes the gap between desired
and realized creative performance.
In order to address this knowledge gap on the shortfall
of the creative outcome, numerous researchers have
highlighted the impact of leadership on fostering
creativity at al l levels, including t he individual, grou p
and organizational level (e.g., Anderson and King, 1993;
Mumford and Gustafson, 1988; Shalley and Gilson,
2004); the fostering of creativity aims at preventing an
outcome in which the desired and the realized
performance differ. In detail, the effects of the leadership
executed through the top managers hereby concerns
different fields of action on the several levels mentioned:
accordingly, leaders play an active role in providing
organizational structures and work environment
conditions, a creativity-valuing climate and culture, as
well as rewards and motivation which encourage people
to generate new ideas and innovative solutions (Drazin
et al., 1999; Mumford, 2000). Most of the recent studies
associated wit h top managerial i nfluence on
organizational creativity thereby are inspired by the
fundamental theoretical work of authors like Amabile
(1988, 1996), Csikszentmihalyi (1999), Ford (1996), or
Woodman et al. (1993), who have contributed
significantly to the current understanding by providing
models for organizational creativity. New research
approaches have advanced the topic into new spheres of
interest such as the impact of organizational creativity at
individual and its correlation with emotional intelligence
(e.g., Jafriet al., 2016). Other areas investigated have been
the effectiveness of creative practices in organizations
(e.g., Bratnicka, 2015), and the impact of the top
managerial characteristics (e.g., Yoonet al., 2015). These
general frameworks, when applied to current research,
represent a description of factors which at best should
enhance employeescreativity, but also can hinder it
(Reiter-Palmon and Illies, 2004).
However, models of creativity developed in the past
among them the prominent ones of the Systems Theory
of Creativityby Csikszentmihalyi (1988, 1999) and the
Componential Theory of Individual Creativityby
Amabile (1988, 1996) are limited in their explanation
of the variance between TMsintended and realized
creativity, as their focus is directed at measuring the
creative effort of individual actors rather than the fact that
the intentionand realization of the efforts mightdiffer. On
this basis, we argue that one important link is missing in
these past models:they do not pay attention to the fact that
every TMs attempt to inspire employees, motivate them,
or encourage them to contribute to creativity is encoded
into a message and has to be transferred and subsequently
decoded bythe workforce. This is a possiblereason for the
gap in outcomes, as the TMs message transmitted to the
employee(s) differs from the message that is received by
the workforce. We therefore theorize that
communication regarding creativity is a complex and
difficult process; this process generally is subject to
numerous obstacles rooted in the process of encoding
and decoding, which affect its outcome. Thus, the
communication processes itself is a potential hindrance
to creativity and may be held responsible for the gap
between the TMsintended creativity and that realized
by the workforce.
In order to address this topic and investigate the
difference in intended and actual outcomes, we have
based our theoretical framework on three concepts, which
are interlinked and which constitute theoretical
fundamentals for this analysis. First, we refer to the
absorptive capacity of the workforce, which is defined as
a set of routines and processes by which knowledge and
information are acquired, assimilated, transformed, and
exploited to produce a creative output (George and Zhou,
2002). We theorize that TMsfostering of creativity is
hindered by the way in which content is communicated,
stating that the knowledge exchange between units does
not take place efficiently. We demonstrate that the
relationship between a TM and the workforce is always
characterized by differences in perception, skills,
knowledge, information, and personality traits, which
ultimately affect the dyadic communication process in
terms of how employees interpret a TMs message and
vice versa. To provide a practical example: a TM with a
MBA degree and a background in finance is employed
at an internationalfashion firm, havinga broad knowledge
of retailers, pricing, and the market environment. When
speaking with, for example designers, professionals with
different capabilities, interests, values, and visions
regarding the fashion products and the label as a whole,
he would face a high level of challenge in order to
communicate effectively. In particular, the
communication of these actors regarding creativity is
highly affected by their differences in perception and
knowledge, eventually affecting the message sent from
the TM to the designer from being understood and
interpreted correctly (Lorenzen and Frederiksen, 2005).
In this case, mattersof absorptive capacity thus the impact
on creativity intended by the TM from being realized.
The two further theoretical concepts applied are the
Speech Act Theory by Austin (1962) and Searle (1969)
and, consequentially the classic Jakobsonian model of
communication (Jakobson, 1960). Within our approach,
the latter is expanded by the reference to the concept of
absorptive capacity in order to explain the gap between
intended and realized creativity. In following this
theoretical procedure, our study aims to investigate this
existing gap,while our research question readsas follows:
To what degree is absorptive capacityresponsible for the
difference prevailing between the intended and the
228 C. Linder and S. Sperber
©2017 European Academy of Management

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