Clashing work roles may actually lead to creativity



Temps de lecture

4 min


Based on an interview with Felipe A. Guzman (IÉSEG) and on his article “When discordant work selves yield workplace creativity: The roles of creative process engagement and relational identification with the supervisor” (Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 2021), co-written with Eren Akkan, of EMLV Paris.

Many employees have multiple roles at work, which impose different goals. When employees experience a tension between their workplace roles, past researchers have seen a recipe for trouble: personal stress and lowered job performance. Yet new research shows that work-role identity conflict may actually breed creative solutions.

As a graduate student, Felipe Guzman took it as a given that his projected career as a university professor – with roles as both a teacher and researcher may have some conflicting objectives. For example, the more time you dedicated to one of these missions, the less time you would have for the other.

When he actually began exercising those roles, however, he found that the situation was not so clear cut, and decided to research the subject formally with his colleague Eren Akkan.

Conflicting values in workplace roles

Previous research had, for example, explored how tourism-industry employees, such as front-desk agents, may be asked to both help clients who need assistance and also promote hotel services that generate income for the establishment. Tension could result from the potential conflict between helping clients and profiting from them. Similarly, another study examined the conflict that production operators may experience when they are asked to assure both the high quality and high quantity of products manufactured.

Past studies had shown negative repercussions for people who experienced conflict, such as lowered feelings of self-esteem, well-being and authenticity, and higher stress levels. Other studies showed that this conflict adversely affected employees’ job performance and decision-making ability.

Akkan and Guzman, however, found surprising upsides to work-role identity conflict. Their study also provided insights into the conditions necessary for arriving at creative solutions.

Solutions that benefit both the employee and company

“When people face conflicts between roles they have at the workplace, it starts a process of thinking about the conflict,” Guzman said. “Conflict makes us uncomfortable and with conflict, we want to come up with solutions.” In other words, conflict stimulates creativity.

Akkan and Guzman’s research focused on three small and medium-sized enterprises. The coauthors polled employees about work-role conflict and other aspects of their lives and jobs, as well as asking employees’ direct supervisors about each employee’s creative problem solving.

Indeed, the researchers found that conflict impacts creativity. However, their results suggest two necessary conditions that drive workplace creativity. The first is that the work-role conflict must trigger a dedicated engagement in resolving the conflict. For that to happen, workers must deeply identify with both roles — if one role is seen as important and the other much less so, the demands of the second could easily be dismissed.

The second condition is identification with the supervisor, who is the most proximal company representative. When employees are not aligned with their manager, the solutions generated take only employees’ personal situation into account. There is no benefit for the company. However, when employees resolve conflicts with their manager’s/company’s goals in mind, innovative solutions that benefit the entire company can result.

How companies can increase employee identification with managers

Considering how important the role of the manager-employee relationship is, Guzman offered the following suggestions for fostering it:

  • Nurturing positive relations between managers and employees (it’s difficult to identify with people we dislike). This requires some degree of personal similarity (sharing goals, working styles, etc.) and positive emotions (enjoying each other’s company).
  • Managers should aim to resolve the needs of their employees. The more managers help subordinates achieve their work-related goals, the more subordinates will identify with them.
  • Supervisor’s work behavior can make a big difference. By being competent, fair and courteous to everyone, and in the case of individual employees, by clearly assigning tasks and providing timely, useful feedback, managers inspire employees to consider their manager/company when making their personal work decisions.

Roles not mutually exclusive

As for how Guzman himself resolved the potential tension between managing his research and teaching, he found that one activity could, in fact, aid the other. As a class assignment, for example, he asked his students to rate other students on their leadership skills. He plans to use this data for his own future research and looks to feed the findings of his research into the different courses he teaches at the School.

Practical applications

The researchers advise that organizations (such as universities) and companies should not necessarily look to resolve work-role identity conflicts for employees but allow employees to resolve them in their own way. The study finds that employees’ awareness of tensions, coupled with a consideration of the needs of the organization, aids them in initiating innovative change.

Furthermore, the study states that “it is critical to create a sense of identification between employees and supervisors so that employees can generate new ideas that are relevant not only for themselves but also for their organization.” Supervisors should thus foster relationships with their employees.


The authors polled the employees of three small and medium-sized Turkish enterprises (one hotel and two manufacturing businesses) about their two most important work roles, if they felt those roles to be in conflict, their engagement in creative problem solving and their relationship with their supervisor. Their participation was voluntary, and the responses remained confidential. They then asked the employees’ managers to rate each employee’s creativity. In all, the sample included 129 employees and 19 managers.

The data were analyzed to determine the role of work-role identity conflict in workplace creativity, and the place of other conditions that stimulate creative workplace solutions.

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Management & SocietyManagement & SocietyUncategorized


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