Why Creative People Are Kept Out of the Driver's Seat

Two candidates are being interviewed for a leadership position in your company. Both have strong resumes, but while one seems to be bursting with new and daring ideas, the other comes across as decidedly less creative (though clearly still a smart cookie). Who gets the job? And who should?

The answer to the question of who gets the leadership job is usually the less creative candidate. This fact may or may not surprise you—you may have seen it happen many times before. You may have even been the creative candidate who got the shaft. But what you're probably wondering is, why?

After all, it's quite clear who should be getting the job. Creativity—the ability to generate new and innovative solutions to problems—is obviously an important attribute for any successful business leader. Research shows that leaders who are more creative are in fact better able to effect positive change in their organizations, and are better at inspiring others to follow their lead.

And yet, according to recent research there is good reason to believe that the people with the most creativity aren't making it to the top of business organizations, because of a process that occurs (on a completely unconscious level) in the mind of everyone who has ever evaluated an applicant for a leadership position.

The problem, put simply, is this: our idea of what a prototypical "creative person" is like is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical "effective leader."

Creativity is associated with nonconformity, unorthodoxy, and unconventionality. It conjures visions of the artist, the musician, the misunderstood poet. In other words, not the sort of people you usually put in charge of large organizations. Effective leaders, it would seem, should provide order, rather than tossing it out the window.

Unconsciously, we assume that someone who is creative can't be a good leader, and as a result, any evidence of creativity can diminish a candidate's perceived leadership potential.

In one study conducted by organizational psychologists Jennifer Mueller, Jack Goncalo, and Dishan Kamdar, 55 employees rated the responses of nearly 300 of their (unidentified) coworkers to a problem-solving task for both creativity (the extent to which their ideas were novel and useful) and as evidence of leadership potential. They found that creativity and leadership potential were strongly negatively correlated—the more creative the response, the less effective a leader the responder appeared.

In a second study, participants were told to generate an answer to the question "What could airlines do to obtain more revenue from passengers?" and give a 10-minute idea pitch to an evaluator. Half of the participants were asked to give creative answers (both novel and useful, e.g. "offer in-flight gambling with other passengers"), while the other half were told to give useful but non-novel answers (e.g., "charge for in-flight meals.") The evaluators, unaware of the different instructions, rated participants who gave creative answers as having significantly less leadership ability.

Even though it is a quality that is much-admired, there is a very clear unconscious bias against creativity when it comes to deciding who gets to be in the driver's seat. Organizations may inadvertently place people in leadership positions who lack creativity and will only preserve the status quo, believing they are picking people with clear leadership potential.

The good news is, the bias can be wiped out—in fact, reversed—if evaluators have a charismatic leader (i.e., someone known for their uniqueness and individualism, like a Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Carly Fiorina) rather than an effective but non-charismatic leader in mind. In the airline-revenue study, when evaluators were asked to list 5 qualities of a "charismatic leader" prior to the idea pitch, the participants with creative solutions were instead perceived as having the most leadership potential.

Taking the time to remind yourself (or, if you are the applicant, remind your interviewer) that creativity is essential to effective leadership rather than at odds with it, is the key to making sure your company has the very best people behind the wheel.

Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson.

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  • Heidi Smith Luedtke

    Great post, Heidi. This will be a significant challenge to business leaders and HR specialists as they move toward filling positions that require what Pink calls right-brained skills (A Whole New Mind).

    As a personality psychologist, I see another challenge here. When people think of creativity as a trait, they narrowly associate it with divergent thinking and artistic ability. They may not understand the complex process of creative problem solving, which has many many more steps than just brainstorming potential solutions. Creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes the stages this way:

    1) fact-finding (how does the system work? what are we trying to accomplish?)
    2) problem finding (anticipating problems with potential strategies)
    3) idea-finding (generating as many ideas as possible)
    4) solution finding (determine which ideas are most effective, efficient, pleasing, feasible, value-driven by testing and evaluating ideas; this narrows the list)
    5) develop (and implement) an action plan

    It is incumbent on job seekers to show not just that they are creative but that they understand how to use creativity to get results, and not just alone, but with teammates. Thinking outside the box must lead to better ways of doing things, not just a laundry list of interesting ideas. Idea generation is a narrow definition of creativity. Leaders must do more.


  • Nicholas Hammond

    Very interesting article. Although in the test where participants were told to generate answers to how airlines could obtain more revenue from passengers I think the logic is a bit flawed.The people that gave "creative" answers were definitely seen as not being of leader material because the answers seemed a bit far fetched compared to those of the people who said something like "charge for in-flight meals." In any situation a persons first reaction is obviously going to want to pick the tried and true method that seems to work the majority of the time. In this situation it seems as though the effects of people not being able to openly accept change is the reason for why answers that were creative were looked down upon.

    I do, however, agree with the majority of the article but to quote a case that could be affected by so many other reasons, I think, is a mistake. It could even have to do with the agenda of the company leaders. If most feel that the airlines are seen as a bad entity from the public due to recent happenings in the industry then they aren't going to want to try and pull a stunt like "offer in-flight gambling with other passengers" because its not what the company is currently looking to do.