Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Bias Against Creatives as Leaders

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?

The answer, unfortunately, is usually the less creative candidate. This fact may or may not surprise you – you yourself may have 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. Studies show 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 given the opportunity to lead, 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. 

 

Our idea of a prototypical creative person is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical effective leader.

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, 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.

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.

The good news is, the bias can be wiped out – in fact, reversed.

So what can you do in an interview to fight the creativity bias? You have some options:

  1. Be armed with evidence of your leadership abilities. Bias is most powerful when there is nothing else concrete to go on – that’s when our brains (unconsciously) fill in the blanks. 
  2. Don’t just focus on your past experience. Talk about what you see as your leadership potential – the kind of leader you see yourself becoming. Studies show that interviewers are drawn to candidates described as having potential (often more than actual achievement.) They’ll spend more time thinking about you, and that extra thinking results in more accuracy and less bias. 
  3. Try to counteract the bias subtly by talking about the charismatic, creative leaders who have been role models for you in the past. 
  4. Tackle the bias head on. Acknowledge that creative types aren’t often chosen for leadership positions, while arguing (nicely) that your ability to offer fresh and innovative solutions to problems is essential to effective leadership, rather than at odds with it. 

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How about you?

Have you ever faced bias as a creative leader? What happened?

Heidi Grant Halvorson

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Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center, is an author and speaker.  In Succeed, she revealed surprising science-based strategies we can use to reach goals.  Her new book is Focus:  Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.
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