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Professor Christina Shalley has been at the forefront of studying creativity in the workplace.

Faculty Profile: Professor Christina Shalley Finding Keys to Creativity

Christina Shalley got an unexpected reaction when she decided to focus her doctoral research in organizational behavior on the subject of creativity.

“Some of her faculty advisers said, ‘Isn’t that something people do in the arts?’ Others thought I meant advertising,” remembers Shalley, who now holds the Thomas R. Williams-Wells Fargo Professorship in Organizational Behavior at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business.

Even though Shalley is artistically inclined, making stain-glass table tops and other decorative pieces, her academic interest in creativity relates to workplace contexts. “Everybody has the ability to be creative,” says the New York City native. “Some people are artistic, while others find creative approaches to their jobs. The perception of creativity has changed over the years. It’s gotten to be one of the hottest topics in organizational behavior.”

Her interest in creativity in the workplace was first sparked while working for the American Foundation for the Blind after graduating from the State University of New York – Albany. She’d developed a new organizational system for corporate and personal donor information, but her proposal was met with resistance. “They said, ‘That’s very creative, but it works the way it is now, so why bother?,’” she remembers.

She sometimes got similar feedback on proposals while working at IBM during a year break she took from her doctoral studies in order to gain more real-world HR experience. “I started to wonder if people really wanted their employees to be creative,” says Shalley, who earned her PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Forefront of Field

In the years since, Shalley has been at the forefront of studying creativity, publishing extensively in many leading journals, including the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Some of this research has also studied ways to enhance team creativity.

One of her largest-scale studies in recent years involved examining the effect of the work context on individuals’ creativity in their jobs across a wide range of industries. “Hiring for creative potential is nice, but not always feasible,” she explains. “But shaping the work environment so that employees can be more creative is something that every manager can do. We found that while personal factors are significant for creativity, overwhelmingly the workplace context is most important.”

Another stream of her research focuses on how the creative process often requires time for mental incubation. This means that your mind continues working subconsciously on problems even if your conscious mind has moved on to other tasks, eventually finding a solution. “It’s that ‘a-ha!’ moment you get in the shower when an idea or solution seems to pop out of nowhere,” Shalley explains.

In a recent study related to mental incubation, Shalley demonstrated that research participants assigned to a creative project could be more effective if they took breaks to work on more routine tasks that were somehow related (instead of dramatically switching gears to work on unconnected projects).

Art of Negotiation

Teaching is just as much a passion for Shalley as research, and her past honors include the Scheller College’s Brady Family Award for Teaching Excellence, the Evening MBA Elective Professor of the Year, and the Full-time MBA Elective Professor of the Year. Her course on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution is consistently one of the most popular electives among MBA students. “The skill of negotiating at work is incredibly important if you want to be influential,” she says.

During the course, she groups students into various role-playing scenarios in which they have to stretch beyond their comfort zones. “They have to portray roles that may or may not feel comfortable for them. For example, one negotiation exercise involves an employee who has tested positive for drugs,” Shalley explains.

“In some exercises, their agendas might conflict with someone else’s and they might have to maneuver in ways they don’t want to,” she adds. “We move from two-party negotiations up to ones involving six people. They have to understand not only what’s going on at the table, but also what’s going on outside – and who might have been influenced politically before arriving in the room. With so much business conducted globally today, we also focus on virtual negotiations that don’t involve face-to-face contact.”

Shalley, who leads the Scheller College’s 11-member Organizational Behavior faculty group, has found both negotiation and creativity instrumental in her own career. When she had her three children, there was not yet procedures in place for how to deal with faculty having children, so she had to work extra hard to balance the demands of work and personal life.

From 2006 to 2012, she held the College’s ADVANCE professorship, a role focused on supporting the advancement of women in academia. “There is the ‘similar-to-me’ bias in which people naturally associate with people like themselves,” she says. “So women, who are in the minority of business professors everywhere, might feel isolated and also need mentoring on issues unique to our gender.”

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