November 22, 2022 • By Jessica Sherer and Red Mallard
Does receiving recognition for creative work actually end up stifling the creative process down the road?
It may seem counterintuitive, but research from Noah Askin, Assistant Professor of Teaching Organizations and Management at The UCI Paul Merage School of Business, and his colleagues suggest this could be the case. In a study soon to appear in Administrative Science Quarterly, Noah and his team explored how group responses to professional acknowledgment impacted their creative endeavors going forward.
“Most research in this area focuses on creativity in the moment,” Noah explained. “It tends to examine the creative process on a short-term basis. We wanted to look at what happens to groups over time as they repeatedly work together creatively.”
To do this, Noah and his team chose to filter their research through the lens of the music industry, namely bands nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy from 1980 to 1990. This lens allowed them to develop a theory of group reactions to accolades and how those reactions influenced the future creative work of bands and musicians.
The idea for this research blossomed during the eight years Noah spent at INSEAD, Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires in France, where colleagues Spencer Harrison and Lydia Hagtvedt had already begun collecting qualitative data. Because of Noah’s mastery of quantitative data collection, particularly regarding how music performs and how songs sell, the team knew he would add an invaluable quantitative element to the research, further elevating the reliability and applicability of the results.
“Spencer and Lydia had already done great work collecting publicly available interviews for the music groups in the sample and creating from those a history of each band’s career,” Noah said. “I came into the study to triangulate with quantitative support the themes that emerged from those histories.”
For example, when bands expressed they experimented with the acoustic features of their music after the Grammy nomination, Noah looked at the measurable acoustic features of subsequent albums and compared that to the acoustic features of the Grammy-nominated album. The desire was to see if there was evidence those bands did indeed experiment.
“For me, this was an opportunity to build on previous research where I analyzed how song novelty or creativity influenced chart performance,” Noah said. “Historically, I’ve been looking at the creativity at the product level in that I’m examining how music performs commercially. This study adds longevity to the mix; it takes that single instance of creative output—the Grammy-nominated album—and sees how that creativity progresses over time as the group keeps making music together.”
The study found groups tend to react in one of three ways upon receiving an early-career accolade like a Grammy nomination. Noah’s team refers to these as “recognition orientations.” The “absorbing” orientation describes a group that internalized the surge of input and higher expectations it receives and opened its relationships and creative process to outsiders. The “insulating” orientation applies to groups that kept expectations and feedback at arm’s length and protected the groups’ relationships. The “mixed” orientation refers to a group that initially internalized the outside voices but eventually learned to compartmentalize the feedback.
For all three orientations, acknowledgment and attention can disrupt or even damage the group’s creative process, but according to this research, absorbing groups tended to struggle the most with sustaining their creative output over time.
“Counterintuitively, a group that internalizes and absorbs the recognition is less likely to earn similar recognition in the future because their creative process takes a hard hit,” Noah explained. “Studies do tend to show that more voices, especially diverse voices, increase creativity in groups and teams, but we found that if you have to deal with a lot of opinions about your creative endeavors, you might have a hard time focusing on what you actually need to do to continue your success.”
That’s not to say creative activities cannot or do not benefit from outsider input. Still, the key seems to be striking a balance between getting recognition (and its ensuing glut of voices) and staying true to the actual process that led to the recognition in the first place. But Noah’s team’s research indicates striking such a balance is quite difficult to do. Because the Best New Artist Grammy nomination is likely to happen early in a band’s career, it can be destabilizing. It may be the first time the group has encountered so many external opinions from fans, record labels, and peers.
“So, in the midst of getting all kinds of attention, a band now must not only figure out how to reproduce the results on their next album, they must also juggle the expectations of their fans, appease their record label, and decide which advice to follow, all while trying to maintain enough creative energy to actually do the work,” Noah said. “It really is difficult to manage everything. Absorbing groups in particular tend to start rushing their work or trying to match their former sound, and this often leads to less creativity and possibly less success.”
Noah also noted that, interestingly, bands in earlier eras did not face this challenge as much. The Best New Artist Grammy was first awarded in 1959, well before MTV, digital recording, streaming services, and social media. At that time, the input of others had fewer ways of making its way to the nominated bands.
“That media spotlight started adding more pressure to bands that were nominated,” Noah explained. “It became much more difficult to downplay or contextualize the recognition and stay true to who you want to be as a band and what kind of music you want to make.”
In adding this study to the literature, Noah and his colleagues hope to fill that gap in the research that lacks examination of creative endeavors within groups that work together for extended periods. More importantly, they hope the results offer insights into the behaviors most likely to help groups successfully navigate the aftermath of recognition.
“Groups do not need to isolate themselves completely in order to stay creative; they just need to protect their creative process and their relationships with one another,” Noah said. “What’s key is not eliminating external influences but rather filtering them through the lens of how the group makes good music together.”
For instance, rather than opening the creative process too much and possibly damaging the band’s interpersonal dynamics, the musicians can elect to take short-term hiatuses. In other words, if the creative energy or flow doesn’t feel right, this research suggests it’s best to take a break and return later with a fresh mindset.
Such an approach could ultimately help preserve the longevity of a creative group. While the absorbing orientation tends to lead groups toward permanent separation, the insulating orientation can inspire healthy, amicable sabbaticals after which groups can come back together with renewed creative energy and interpersonal trust.
Building upon this and other studies, Noah is now examining how to demonstrate the way creativity is shared. This research will map out which attributes lead to the most creative and most novel songs.
“Am I more creative because I work with certain people? Is my music more creative when I record in L.A. instead of Nashville? These are the types of questions I want to answer,” Noah said. “Using the categories of genre, people/network, geography, and organizational affiliation (record label), I want to explore which of those variables, or combination of variables, most directly influences what I—as a musician—can and can’t do creatively.”
Noah Askin is an assistant professor of teaching organizations and management at The UCI Paul Merage School of Business. His research interests include the production and consumption of culture, creativity and how it is fostered and received, as well as interpersonal networks and their influence on the creative process. He is one of the founding members of the Creative Industries Conference and maintains ties to the business and not-for-profit sectors as a coach and consultant.