Creativity and the blame game

Hendrick_ter_Brugghen_blame 4With the new emphasis on the need for creative leadership come a plethora of publications on how to be more creative. But taking those ideas to heart may not be the best move.  More than one research study has shown that expressing creative ideas actually hurts a person’s chances of being considered leadership material.

A study from Wharton Business College and Cornell University found that people judged creative colleagues as having less leadership potential than their peers with less original ideas. So another study by the same team attempted to determine exactly why this occurred.  They had college students watch other students pitch solutions to a problem, some of the proposals were both original and useful, fitting the definition of creative ideas. The second set of students try to sell useful but well known ideas. It really was the creativity of the ideas, not the likeableness, personal warmth, or competence of the presenter that correlated with a perceived lower potential for leadership.[1] Why is this?

People are not comfortable with creative ideas. The novelty of trying a new concept stretches the mind. How exactly will the innovation work? What will the outcome be? Trying new ideas to solve problems leaves us in a haze of unpredictability.  Continuous innovation is often eschewed because people do not want continual change. They are comfortable with the “tried and true” even when these fail to work as well as they used to.

Michael Kirton’s long term study of managers identified two different styles of creative problem solving. He tested his theory using the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory, a self reported 32 item measurement that asked managers the difficulty of presenting themselves in the areas of originality, efficiency and conformity.  At one end of the continuum was the Adaptive style manager.  This person tried to improve within the current model of the existing organization.  They made changes incrementally and were seen a dependable and efficient.  Their ideas were more easily accepted by the employees.  And if they made a misjudgment, or if one of their solutions turned out to be a mistake, people tended to forgive them. At the other end of the continuum were the Innovators. This group of managers reached for breakthrough changes to the organization. They did not try to conform to the status quo, but were seen as unique, original, visionary and ingenious. They were also criticized, and often fell out of favor if they were mistaken and their novel ideas did not work.[2]

There seems to be a double standard when it comes to “mistake forgiveness” among leaders. If a manager proposes novel ideas, there is resistance both to the ideas and the individuals proposing it. If the ideas fail, the manager receive all the blame. But If they try traditional solutions without success, there seems to be little recrimination. After all, who would have guessed that the same old thing would not work anymore?

[1] A Bias against ‘Quirky’? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Leadership Positions (accessed Jan 26 2014)
[2] Kirton, M.J. (1976). Adaptors and innovators: A description and measure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61, pp. 622 – 629.
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