BLG Leadership Insights Features Managerial Competence

Why No One Wants Creativity at the Top

According to a recent survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs identify “creativity,” the ability to generate novel and useful solutions, as the most important leadership competency for the successful organization of the future.   Creative leadership allows leaders to move organizations in profitable new directions, a view supported by management research showing that leaders with creative ability are more effective at promoting positive change and inspiring their followers than leaders who lack creative ability.  Clearly there is a great deal at stake when attempting to identity the creative leaders in our midst, but do people actually get it right?

My colleagues and I have found that although people claim to want creative leadership, people who voice creative solutions are actually viewed as having lower levels of leadership potential.  In other words, if you want the top spot, you had better keep your creativity in check.  We found strong evidence to support this assertion from three different studies using different methodologies and a diverse set of participants–both employees and undergraduates.  For example, in one study, we told participants they would be participating in a mock interview.  One set of participants were randomly instructed to come up with a “creative” solution (e.g. both novel and useful) to a business problem while another set of participants were randomly instructed to come up with a “practical” solution (e.g. just useful).  Each participant was judged by an evaluator who was specifically instructed to listen to the response and rate the applicant on their overall leadership potential and their potential for creative leadership.  Who came out on top?  Not the creative types.  Interviewers consistently overlooked the creative applicants in favor of their more practical counterparts.  They did so despite the fact that the creative solutions were just as feasible as the practical solutions, they were just more novel.  In other words, the creative applicants were expressing exactly the kinds of ideas that most innovative firms claim to be looking for.

The psychological process behind this bias is relatively simple:  Stereotypes of “creative people” and “effective leaders” clash in the minds of those who are responsible for judging leadership potential.  When deciding whether or not someone “fits” a particularly category (e.g. a leader) most people compare that person’s qualities to an ideal type.  The prototypical leader is expected to organize and coordinate groups to diminish uncertainty and promote order by emphasizing shared goals.  The prototypical leader is also expected to conform to group norms and goals in order to support the group identity and to promote collective action.  People who behave in ways that convey these characteristics to others are readily categorized as fitting the leadership prototype.

Does the typical creative individual fit this prototype?  As you probably guessed—no, not really.  The mere expression of creative solutions may actually introduce ambiguity or uncertainty, in part, because by definition, novel ideas involve deviations from the status quo and are not yet proven. People who express creative ideas are often viewed as unpredictable, rebellious, unorthodox, and unconventional – traits which run contrary to deeply rooted expectations that prototypical leaders diminish uncertainty and provide normative order.  So, it is no surprise then that creative people are filtered out on the way to the top.  We claim to want creativity but end up favoring, hiring and electing people who uphold the status quo.

Picture Credit: Smaedli