Are The Best Innovators Those Who Have Power, Or Those Who Want It?

Where should you look to find the most creative, flexible, forward-thinking people in your organization - at the top, or in the rank-and-file? For years, the answer provided by research seemed a straightforward one: powerful people are more creative. But thanks to a recent set of studies, it's clear that the story is a bit more complicated than that.

Being in a position of power certainly changes you - not necessarily in an evil way, but there is a definite shift in how you perceive the world around you when you're the one in the driver's seat. You think in a more abstract, big-picture way. You become more optimistic, more comfortable with risk, and more open to new possibilities. (A series of studies by Cameron Anderson and Adam Galinsky showed that when people felt powerful, they preferred riskier business plans with bigger potential rewards to more conservative plans, divulged more information and were more trusting during negotiations, chose to "hit" more often during a game of black-jack, and were more even likely to engage in unprotected sex during a one-night stand.)

The relatively powerless, on the other hand, are more concerned with safety and security. They've got their guards up, and have to stay focused on not making mistakes or displeasing the higher-ups. Their thinking is more concrete, more conventional, and more risk-averse—not at all conducive to great innovation.

When you are in power, you can be more innovative because you feel more comfortable and secure, and less sensitive to or constrained by what other people think of you. Unless, of course, you don't feel secure—because your position of power is not guaranteed. Then, according to new studies from researchers at the University of Amsterdam, the tables turn.

When the powerful can become the powerless, and vice versa, psychologists call it an "unstable power hierarchy." If you are operating in that kind of environment and staying in power is your primary focus, then feelings of power can actually make you more conservative.

Basically, when you don't want to lose the power you've worked so hard to attain, you avoid risks and your creativity is diminished. But unstable power hierarchies are terrific for unleashing the potential of the rank-and-file, because the very real prospect of becoming powerful has the same mind-expanding effects on our thinking that being powerful has in a stable environment.

So if you are at the top of your game and your position is essentially irrevocable or at least particularly secure (think Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or a second-term U.S. President), you mind is likely teaming with bold and possibly brilliant new ideas. But where gains and losses of power are not only possible but likely, ordinary Joes and Janes may be your organization's most creative innovators.

To learn more about creativity, innovation, and reaching your career goals, check out Heidi's new book is Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson. Her website is www.heidigranthalvorson.com.

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