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
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
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.