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Past Issue • Apr-Jun 2011

Creativity In Leadership: Conform to Rise

Creativity In Leadership: Conform to Rise

Dishan Kamdar, Associate Professor at the Indian School of Business discusses his paper “Recognising Creative Leadership: Can Creative Idea Expression Negatively Relate to Perceptions of Leadership Potential” that he co-authored with Professor Jan Mueller of the Wharton School and Professor Jack A Goncalo of Cornell University. This paper was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 494-498

Creativity compels us to channel energy in myriad ways. Lady Gaga sings, Rahman composes, Rowling writes and Hussain paints. Researchers have tried to understand its source in order to help increase productivity. They have also studied its impact on businesses extensively because creativity fuels innovation, which is the fulcrum that lifts the economy. But as creativity gives, it also obfuscates. While many researchers have pointed out that creativity is the most valuable trait in leaders, we found in our studies that expression of creative ideas may reduce the judgments of leadership potential. Three studies on sample theories of creativity and leadership were conducted. All the studies indicated that there was a strong negative association between expressing creative ideas and leadership potential. This highlights an important but previously unidentified prejudice against selecting effective leaders.
The findings of this study differ drastically from other researches that emphasise the importance of creativity to leadership abilities. In a 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 successful organisations  (Kern, 2010). This finding does not stand alone. Research has always indicated that creative leaders are more effective at promoting positive change and inspiring their followers than non creative leaders. (House & Howell, 1992; Mumford & Connelly, 1991; Mumford, Marks, Connelly, Zaccaro, & Reiter-Palmon, 2000; Shin & Zhou, 2003; Shin & Zhou, 2007; Sternberg, 2007; Tierney, Farmer, & Graen, 1999; Yukl, 1989).  However, by integrating research on stereotypes with leadership and creativity, a potential roadblock for creative leadership in organisations was found– Creative people may have a harder time gaining leadership positions than people who voice practical but unoriginal solutions. This is because people may nurture opposing stereotypes of “creative people” and “effective leaders” in their minds. People may simply have a harder time recognising creative leaders than previously thought because they recognise leaders by matching a person’s behavior to the general expectations about the leaders’ role. Through socialisation, media, and observation, the average person expects a leader to behave in a certain manner. Leaders are expected to possess good organisation skills, which usually involves creatinggoals or roles to reduce uncertainty. Leaders also have to conform to group norms (e.g., coming prepared to meetings) as a means of reinforcing how members should behave. So for the average person, a leader is someone who behaves in ways that will reduce uncertainty in his or her followers, and conforms to the group goal as a means of getting work done.

Expression of creative ideas may reduce the judgments of leadership potential.

However, by suggesting novel ideas or voicing creative solutions, a leader introduces ambiguity. This does not match the leadership expectations associated with exuding control and promoting clear goals (Amabile, 1996; Staw, 1995). Creative people are associated with traits like nonconformity, unorthodoxy, and unconventionality (Elsbach & Kramer, 2003; Sternberg, 1985).  So voicing or expressing a creative idea is a behavior associated with uncertainty, and nonconformity – This conflicts with our deeply rooted expectations that leaders diminish uncertainty and provide normative order (Phillips & Lord, 1981).

Targets who voiced more creative ideas were seen as having less leadership potential.

Study 1: Too creative to lead?
To test this idea, a comprehensive study was conducted on a division of a large multinational refinery in Central India. 291 employees were graded by 55 coworkers to assess the extent to which they came up with new and useful ideas but were also likely to “become an effective leader” and “advance to a leadership position.”   In this organisation, all employees had jobs where creativity was encouraged, and where creativity was often rewarded, sometimes with promotion to managerial positions. In analysing the data, likelihood that some creative people were simply not interested in moving up the management ranks, was also taken into consideration. This study showed that targets who voiced more creative ideas were seen as having less leadership potential.

Study 2: Creative people give wacky ideas
The scope of the study was broadened by including 194 students enrolled in a large university in the northeastern United States.
Half the group was randomly assigned to the role of “idea pitcher,” while the other half had to evaluate those ideas.  The pitchers were told to come up with an idea for how an airline might generate more revenue from passengers.  Among the idea pitchers, half were told to come up with a creative solution that was both novel and useful to that problem. The other half were told to come up with an idea that was simply useful. Students had 10 minutes to pitch the evaluators on their ideas, and then the evaluators rated them on several factors including the creativity of the idea and its leadership potential. Evaluators were told to grade pitchers based on their ability to lead a student team on a class project regarding making money in the airline industry where the instructor will give higher grades for creative papers.
Again, pitchers who were told to voice creative ideas were viewed to have significantly less leadership potential than those who just came up with useful solutions. To be sure that this wasn’t just a personality issue, the personality trait of extroversion was controlled in the pitchers. Even on likeability and competence, both groups were viewed as being equally warm and competent. So the problem was simply the presentation of a clever idea, not a perceived personality deficiency. Whether pitchers in the creative condition merely pitched wildly novel but not at all useful ideas was also assessed. Interestingly, ideas pitched in both the creative and practical condition were rated as equally useful.  As predicted, the creative ideas were viewed as significantly more novel than the practical ideas.

Organisations may face a bias against selecting the most creative individuals as leaders in favor of selecting leaders who would preserve the status quo by sticking with feasible but relatively unoriginal solutions.

Study3: Charismatic leaders can be creative
However, there is some good news for creative people. For the third study, students were asked to read a story about a person expressing a creative (novel and useful) or a practical (useful not novel) idea. In this study when evaluators were told to think of a charismatic leader, the findings reversed.  That is, when subjects thought about charismatic leaders before rating the story, they viewed the person expressing a creative idea as having higher leadership potential. But the findings in the previous study were also replicated in this study. That is, when subjects were just told to think of a leader in general, the same negative pattern emerged – voicing the creative idea was associated with less leadership potential.
Creative solutions are both “novel” and “useful.” The study design incorporated this two-part definition.  In both studies 2 and 3 idea usefulness did not differ significantly. Indeed, the results indicate that holding usefulness constant, idea creativity (usefulness and novelty) contributed to diminished leadership perceptions, but did not contribute to lower perceptions of competence.  Therefore, the findings are not best explained by the simple fact that people dismiss potential leaders who suggest wildly irrelevant ideas, or that there is a negative halo associated with expressing creative ideas.
These findings suggest that organisations may face a bias against selecting the most creative individuals as leaders in favor of selecting leaders who would preserve the status quo by sticking with feasible but relatively unoriginal solutions.  This may explain why in their analysis of scores of leaders, IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that many leaders expressed doubt or lack of confidence in their own ability to lead through times of complexity (Kern, 2010).  This paper suggests that if the dominant prototype of leadership favors useful, non-creative responses, that the senior leaders in the IBM study may have been promoted based on this prototypical perception of leadership and now find themselves in a world that has vastly changed, one that requires much more creative responses and thinking.
Indeed, this bias in favor of promoting less creative leaders may partially explain why so many leaders fail (Hogan & Hogan, 2001), and why so many groups resist change (Argyris, 1997), as the leaders selected may simply lack the openness to recognise solutions that depart from what is already known.

Future Research Goals
For future research, Professor Kamdar and Professor Mueller have developed a programme with two broad goals.  Their first stream of research builds from the current study suggesting that just as people hold bias against creativity which is not openly expressed; they can also hold implicitly bias against creativity which is not necessarily overt. This line of work begins to explain a longstanding paradox in the creativity literature, that decision-makers often reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as a desired goal. The current study – in this line of work was accepted for publication at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and shows that while a large body of literature extols creative leaders, voicing creative ideas – one primary way non-leaders exhibit creativity – diminishes perceptions of leadership potential. Hence, they provide evidence to suggest that the implicit prototype of creativity (associated with uncertainty and challenging the status quo) is largely at odds with the implicit prototype of leadership (associated with diminishing uncertainty by promoting goals and norms). In other words, their results suggest that the selection process governing leadership emergence favours the selection of less creative leaders who may move groups in directions that maintain rather than challenge the status quo. Furthering this agenda, the researchers have developed a study to test what environmental factors might promote an implicit bias against creativity and whether the bias also related to the degeneration of creative ideas. In this study, they plan to explore the possibility that organisations may indeed create environments which explicitly encourage creativity – but do so in ways that activate a bias against creativity by also promoting intolerance for uncertainty. This study will use a cutting edge methodology to assess the bias against creativity – the Implicit Attitude Test (IAT) – the most commonly employed method of measuring implicit associations. They have adapted the IAT in prior studies to assess positive and negative associations with creativity and practicality. This measure relies on test-takers’ reaction times when rating pairings between an attitude object (e.g., creativity or practicality) and an evaluative dimension (e.g. good or bad). The IAT is desirable to use because it is more resistant to social desirability bias – and they think this is important because employees in organisations generally feel a strong social pressure to endorse positive views of creativity.
Their second stream of work aspires to adapt the theory of individual level creativity to better reflect the challenges employees experience when they creative problem solve in group settings. This body of work proposes that help seeking behaviours require employees to navigate additional barriers not present when creative problem solving. For example, Professor Kamdar and Professor Mueller have a paper which was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Applied Psychology which suggests that help seeking behaviours (and not merely the amount of help received) promote individual level creativity in group contexts, and partially mediate the relationship between intrinsic motivation and creativity. However, their work suggests that help seeking required employees to reciprocate help giving – which diminishes creativity and the indirect effect of intrinsic motivation on creativity via help seeking. Following this work, they have recently collected data showing that help seeking promotes individual level creativity yet diminishes a seekers reputation and corresponding ability to implement ideas, but the ideas they implement tend to have lower levels of creativity overall. This manuscript is currently being revised – and the authors anticipate submitting it to Academy of Management Journal soon.


  • Dishan-Kamdar-Author

    Dishan Kamdar

    Professor of Organisational Behaviour, ISB; and Deputy Dean, Academic Programmes at the Indian School of Business (ISB).
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