When you think of creativity, you probably think about artists, musicians, or writers. One field of study that probably doesn’t come to mind immediately is business management. But Nora Madjar, an associate professor of management in the UConn School of Business, has spent her career looking at ways to emphasize the benefits of creativity in the workplace.
When Madjar came to the United States to earn her Ph.D., she began to explore this idea, something which might not have been possible in her home country of Bulgaria.
“Bulgaria is a former socialist country where creativity was not encouraged or allowed,” Madjar says. “When I came to the United States, that’s where my interest in researching creativity in the workplace started.”
One of the first projects Madjar researched looked at the relationship between taking breaks from a given task and improved creativity.
She found that when people take a break, if they engage in an activity that helps stimulate their creativity, they can return to the task at hand with a refreshed outlook and come up with solutions they hadn’t considered before.
“After a break or disruption, we can return to a task that was previously stumping us with a fresh perspective and often come up with new and creative solutions,” she says. “It helps to forget what you were stuck on or to make new connections, sometimes accidentally coming across new insights and information through the break activity or interruption. It may not always be efficient, but it does lead to more creative solutions.”
When Madjar first started researching creativity in the early 2000s, organizational creativity was still a new field of inquiry. “When I started my research on creativity in the workplace it was not a major topic,” she says. “Organizational behavior research was mostly focused on efficiency, reducing error rates, and the quality of work.”
Colleagues at UConn and beyond recognize the importance of Madjar’s ongoing research on these and other questions related to business management.
“Creativity research has come a long way in the last decade, and Nora is one of the scholars at the forefront of this field,” says Lucy Gilson, professor and head of the Department of Management in the School of Business. “Where Nora contributes to knowledge is by looking at really interesting questions, what happens when we take a break, how can others help us be more creative at work, and are there differences between the drivers of small incremental creative changes and major breakthroughs.”
Madjar’s research has proved that allowing and encouraging employees to be creative provides companies with a competitive advantage, not only when corporations are looking for ways to grow but also in times of economic crisis. When the economy is in crisis, companies need to be more creative in order to survive, because it is during hard times that organizations realize that normal operating procedures may not be the only way to do business, and that new ideas for processes and products are needed.
Madjar also looks at individual creativity and the context in which someone’s creative capacity can thrive.
“In the past, the creative individual was imagined as a professor or genius sitting alone with no distractions, generating their new ideas in isolation,” she says. “But this isn’t how the world works. The social context of creativity is equally important.”
One of the most vital factors in the social context is having a supportive network of leaders and coworkers, as well as friends and family.
“Creativity is risky. We fear we’ll be rejected or our ideas will fail,” Madjar says. “So to mitigate the risk associated with being creative, we need a group that supports us.”
Another way our support networks can help us is by asking questions that provoke us to think about a problem from an outsider’s perspective.
“In addition to coworkers and teammates, friends and family members are extremely helpful for generating insights that help us solve work problems creatively,” Madjar says. “A manufacturing worker can learn about safety from his or her kindergarten teacher spouse, for instance. A grandparent, who doesn’t understand what you’re working on, may ask a question that makes you revisit or consider a solution you hadn’t thought of before. In the process of explaining your problem to someone who is not an expert in the field, you may come up with a new perspective and creative solution.”
One of the major takeaways Madjar has from her research is that managers should realize the creative capacity of their employees, and find ways to encourage and harness it in the workplace. One way they can do this is by creating problem-solving teams of employees who deal directly with everyday problems.
“It’s important for regular employees to have a say and a way to channel their creative power,” she says. “Employees can recognize a problem and come up with a solution that a manager who didn’t know about the problem firsthand wouldn’t be able to.”
Teaching the Next Generation of Problem Solvers
Madjar’s teaching at UConn diverges somewhat from her research focus; most of the courses she teaches deal with management and negotiation. But she still incorporates her research into her teaching by instructing students on ways to negotiate creatively to find the best deal for both sides.
“In negotiating, a win-win solution is the best outcome for everybody involved,” she says, “and sometimes, creativity is needed to find the win-win solution.”
Four years ago, Madjar started a collaboration between the School of Business and UConn Law to host a negotiation competition for students in Hartford. Winners from the UConn cohort may then go on to compete in national and international competitions. Over the years she has led student teams to competitions in Austria, Columbia, Poland, and Japan, where they have taken on teams from China, Iceland, Spain, Germany, and India.
“The students in those competitions excelled by showing their ability to come up with creative arguments and solutions,” she says.
Another aspect of her teaching deals with helping women negotiate better deals for themselves in the workplace.
Evidence from multiple studies has shown that the wage gap between men and women persists even when job level, preferences, family leave, and other factors are taken into account. The Pew Research Center found women made only 85 percent of what their male colleagues did in 2018. One explanation for this difference is that women are less likely than men to engage successfully in salary negotiations.
However, when women are negotiating on behalf of someone else, studies have shown they are more likely to be effective negotiators. Madjar has put this research into practice in her classes, encouraging students, especially women, to think of others who would benefit, such as their family, when negotiating their own salary and wages.
“When women start to think about negotiating as not only getting an advantage for themselves, but for someone else, they become better negotiators and come up with more creative solutions and better outcomes,” she says.
Robust interest in Madjar’s classes indicates both the desire and the need for such training, as students prepare to enter the workforce after their time at UConn.
“Nora is in hot demand as an instructor, her classes are always full, with a waiting list. And we have students from all over campus asking to be allowed to sit in and observe,” says Gilson. “The topic of negotiation in particular is so important, and the success that Nora has had with her competition teams and helping women and entrepreneurs feel empowered to ask for what they are worth is something that will continue to pay dividends for our students as they embark on their careers.”
Madjar holds a Ph.D. in business administration from the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Sofia University, Bulgaria. She was a Fulbright scholar in Bulgaria in 2011. She has been named the MBA teacher of the year in the management department for the past five consecutive academic years. And she has published multiple papers in premier journals, and presented at conferences throughout America and abroad.