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Divine Inhibition: Research finds thinking about God at work can stifle creativity

Mar 24, 2021, 14:09 by Aaron Bennett
New research from Gies College of Business Professor Jack Goncalo shows that believers might experience divine inhibition rather than divine inspiration at work.

New research shows that believers might experience divine inhibition rather than divine inspiration at work.

“Until now, there has given little attention to the impact of actively thinking of God on task performance,” said Gies College of Business Professor Jack Goncalo, who is a co-author of the paper  “Divine Inhibition: Does Thinking About God Make Monotheistic Believers Less Creative?”

“As individuals are given wider latitude to openly practice and express their faith at work, it is likely that believers will spend at least part of their working life actively thinking about God. The growing intersection of faith and work raises the important questions of whether and why thinking about God might impact a believer’s performance,” added Goncalo, the Helen P. Seass Faculty Fellow at the College at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

About 71% of people worldwide report they believe in God (Gallup). Previous studies show human resources professionals report a rising number of requests for accommodation of religious practices and displays of faith while at work (Cash, Gray & Hood, 2000). And, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,  there are increasing complaints about religious discrimination.

Goncalo said this research is among the first to connect religiosity to work performance, patent output and the concept of “followership.” His co-authors are University College London professor Verena Krause and Carmit T. Tadmor, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management. Together, they spent seven years on this paper that includes six studies using different populations, mixed methods, and complementary measures of creativity.

“Most of the research on religiosity and thinking about God in the workplace is quite positive. It makes you more pro-social, more cooperative, more helpful. You follow rules. But from my study of creativity, I’ve learned creative ideas often comes from rebelling against authority and breaking tradition. Being competitive, not cooperative. So, I began to think these two things might not be compatible,” said Goncalo, who added as their thinking progressed they hypothesized belief in God may be good for many things, but not enhancing creativity.

“We can think of people as creative, but we can also think of organizations as creative. They have norms that permit people to break rules. Being creative at work is now seen as a competitive advantage that leads to innovation,” said Goncalo.

“Our findings suggest that leaders can’t count on divine inspiration from believers. They think God is all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful, whether they are a Christian, Jewish or Muslim. We reasoned that if you give your faith to God, you’re more likely to unquestioningly follow a leader. That’s what’s called ’passive followership’,” said Goncalo.

One experiment from the paper, for example, causally links thinking about God to creative performance. In it, one set of participants were asked to think about God while another set was asked to think about a neutral topic (e.g.. describe your day yesterday). After completing this task, participants then brainstormed new business ideas that were rated for how creative they were. The results showed those who first thought about God generated significantly less creative business ideas in the subsequent task. But importantly, this negative effect of thinking about God on creativity happened only for participants who reported that they were believers.  

If an organization values creativity, the study concludes leaders need to think more about how to incorporate a huge part of their employee’s lives into the workplace.

“Believers are not going to leave religion at the office door,” said Goncalo. “This discussion suggests there are many possibilities that await future research on whether and how religious faith might be integrated into the workplace.”

Goncalo joined Gies in 2016. His research focuses on individual and team creativity, the evaluation of new ideas, and the impact of political correctness in the workplace. He teaches courses on organizational behavior, leadership and managing for creativity and innovation. Prior to joining the University of Illinois, he was a professor of organizational behavior at the Cornell University ILR School. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology, master’s degree in business, and PhD in business administration from the University of California at Berkeley.