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A Bias against 'Quirky'? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Leadership Postitions

A Bias against 'Quirky'? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Leadership Postitions

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Published by Betsey Merkel
A Bias against 'Quirky'? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Leadership Positions: Knowledge@Wharton (http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2713)

A Bias against 'Quirky'? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Leadership Positions
Published : February 16, 2011 in Knowledge@Wharton

Creativity is good -- and more critical than ever in business. So why do so many once-creative companies get bogged down over time, with continuous innovation the exception and not the norm? Wharton m
A Bias against 'Quirky'? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Leadership Positions: Knowledge@Wharton (http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2713)

A Bias against 'Quirky'? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Leadership Positions
Published : February 16, 2011 in Knowledge@Wharton

Creativity is good -- and more critical than ever in business. So why do so many once-creative companies get bogged down over time, with continuous innovation the exception and not the norm? Wharton m

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Published by: Betsey Merkel on Feb 20, 2011
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A Bias against 'Quirky'? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on LeadershipPositions
Published : February 16, 2011 inKnowledge@Wharton 
Creativity is good -- and more critical than ever in business. So why do somany once-creative companies get bogged down over time, with continuousinnovation the exception and not the norm? Wharton management professor  Jennifer Mueller  Jennifer Mueller and colleagues from Cornell University and the Indian Schoolof Business have gained critical insight into why.In a paper titled, "Recognizing Creative Leadership: Can Creative IdeaExpression Negatively Relate to Perceptions of Leadership Potential?" to be published in the March 2011 issue of the
 Journal of Experimental Social  Psychology
, Mueller and co-authors Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell and DishanKamdar of ISB undertook three studies to examine how creative people wereviewed by colleagues. The troubling finding: Those individuals who expressedmore creative ideas were viewed as having less, not more, leadership potential.The exception, they found, was when people were specifically told to focus oncharismatic leaders. In that case, creative types fared better. But the bottom lineis that, in most cases, being creative seems to put people at a disadvantage for climbing the corporate ladder. "It is not easy to select creative leaders," says Mueller. "It takes more timeand effort to recognize a creative leader than we might have previously thought."That reality should be of concern to those who sit in corporate boardrooms around the globe. In a recentsurvey of 1,500 CEOs by IBM's Institute for Business Value, creativity was named the single mostimportant attribute for success in leading a large corporation in the future. That finding is hardlysurprising to Mueller. "There is research that shows that those who have their own creative ideas are better leaders," she notes. "Those individuals know how to recognize good ideas, are open to them andknow how to get creative ideas through [the organization]. Selecting creative leaders is the criticalchallenge organizations face."But understanding the need for creativity within a large company is not the same as actually fostering it.Indeed, Mueller's work shows that those who think outside the box may be penalized for it. In the firststudy included in the paper, Mueller and her colleagues examined this trend at a division of a largemultinational refinery in Central India. A total of 346 employees took part in the study, with 291 of them being evaluated for leadership potential and 55 employees making those evaluations. The raters wereasked to fill out questionnaires on these 291 individuals, grading them on both the degree to which theycame up with new, useful ideas and the extent to which they were likely to "become an effective leader"and "advance to a leadership position." In analyzing the data, Mueller and her team controlled for thelikelihood that some creative types were simply not interested in moving up the management ranks.The group found a significant correlation between being creative and being seen as poor managementmaterial. "By definition, people will say creativity is positive," Mueller states. "It is almost impossible toget people to say they don't want creativity. But when someone actually voices a creative idea, there is aresponse of, 'Wow -- What is that?' This issue really comes to life at the moment the idea is voiced. Thereis discomfort when people encounter creativity."
'Idea Pitcher' vs. Idea Evaluator
That finding was borne out in a second study. Here, Mueller and her colleagues studied 194 studentsenrolled in a large university in the northeastern United States. Half the group was put into the role of 
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All materials copyright of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Page 1 of 3
A Bias against 'Quirky'? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Leadership Positions: Knowledge@Wharton(http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2713
 
)
 
"idea pitcher," while the other half had the job of evaluating those ideas. The challenge was to come upwith 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 to that problem, which was defined as one that was bothnovel and useful. The other half were told to come up with an idea that was simply useful. Students had10 minutes to pitch the evaluators on their ideas, and then the evaluators rated them on several factorsincluding how creative the idea was and what sort of leadership potential each one had.Again, those who came up with creative ideas were viewed to have significantly less leadership potentialthan those who simply came up with a useful solution. To be sure that this wasn't just a personality issue --that somehow the creative people were coming across as less likable -- Mueller's team also askedquestions about how competent and warm the idea pitchers were. That revealed that both groups wereviewed as being equally warm and competent. So the problem was simply the presentation of a clever idea, not a perceived personality defect.According to Mueller, these findings are consistent with how people have traditionally defined businessleadership in the past. "The value that leaders have for groups is in creating common goals so the groupcan achieve something," Mueller notes. "And goals are better the clearer they are -- you don't wantuncertainty. So leaders need to diminish uncertainty and create standards of behavior for everyone in thegroup. And they create those standards by conforming to them."She contrasts that thinking with how people describe a creative person. Other academic literature hasfound that when people are asked what comes to mind when they think of a creative person, "in additionto 'visionary' and 'charismatic,' people also use words like 'quirky,' 'unfocused' [and] 'nonconformist.' Thefact is people don't feel just positively about creative individuals -- they feel ambivalent about them."Of course, Mueller says not every organization fails to promote creative types. Some firms, like IDEOand Apple, are specifically geared toward nurturing creativity and valuing innovation; the value of thosequalities is ingrained in their culture, Mueller states, not just something that is given lip service by the top brass. To show this, Mueller and her colleagues performed a third study. In this case, they took a group of 183 students at a large Northeastern university and broke them into two groups. The first group was primed to think about leadership and charisma together by being asked to list five attributes that define acharismatic leader. "When you have the word 'charismatic' activated in your mind, you may be thinkingmore along the lines of creativity," Mueller notes.After listing those attributes, the group was given a story about a person voicing an idea, again for how anairline could generate more revenue from passengers. Half the group were given the story with theindividual putting forth a useful, but not novel, idea for solving that problem while the other half weregiven the story with the person coming up with a creative and useful suggestion (in this case, it was tocharge for online gaming during the flight). They all were asked to rate, on leadership potential, the person who came up with the idea. In this case, the group exposed to the creative idea rated that person ashaving higher leadership potential than the group whose story contained someone putting forth just a practical idea.But what if people were not thinking specifically about charismatic leaders? The second group out of thatsame pool of 183 students was not primed to think about charisma and leadership together. They weresimply asked to list attributes of a leader; the word 'charismatic' was not mentioned. Then these studentswere broken into two groups and put through the same exercise of rating either a creative idea or just auseful one. In this case, the results were the opposite of the first group studied -- they ranked theleadership potential of the person who had a creative idea below that of the individual who simply cameup with a useful idea.
Debunking Stereotypes
According to Mueller, this study points to the conflicting feelings that people often have around trulycreative thinkers. In the paper, she and her co-authors write that leaders who are the most original may beoverlooked "in favor of selecting leaders who would preserve the status quo by sticking with feasible, butrelatively unoriginal solutions." They suggest that the reality created by this bias could explain why theIBM survey of leaders found that many expressed doubt or a lack of confidence in their ability to takecharge in times of complexity. Those leaders were ostensibly promoted "based on this prototypical
 
All materials copyright of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Page 2 of 3
A Bias against 'Quirky'? Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Leadership Positions: Knowledge@Wharton(http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2713
 
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