Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Key to Being a Creative Leader? Job Security.

Many of us spend years toiling away in obscurity before our hard work and talent begin to receive real recognition. Those years working in the rank-and-file of a design firm or a fashion house (or in your sixth floor walk up studio, surviving on Ramen noodles and hope) can be richly creative. You develop your own vision, you practically burst with fresh ideas, and you eagerly await the day when you will have the power to do things you want to do, your way.

But what happens when you finally do become the one in charge? What happens when your influence begins to grow, when other people start looking to you to lead? Will your creative, innovative ideas still flow? Will you still be hooked up to your Muse? Or will all that newfound power somehow get in the way of your vision?

Being in a position of power certainly changes you – not necessarily in an evil way, but research shows 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.

In fact, a series of studies by psychologists 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, were more trusting during negotiations, chose to “hit” more often during a game of blackjack, and were even more likely to engage in unprotected sex during a one-night stand.

In other words: you are likely to be even more creative than you were when you felt relatively powerless.

There is a definite shift in how you perceive the world when you’re the one in the driver’s seat.

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 powerful and influential is your primary focus, then feelings of power can actually make you more conservative.

When you don’t want to lose the power you’ve worked so hard to attain, you avoid risks and potential mistakes, and your creativity is diminished.

So if you are at the top of your game and your position is essentially irrevocable or at least particularly secure (think Steve Jobs or Richard Branson) your creativity will flourish.

When you don’t want to lose the power, you avoid risks and your creativity is diminished.

If, on the other hand, your position is vulnerable, the key to remaining creative and successful is to avoid focusing on your vulnerability. Stop worrying about the Next Big Thing when you need the Big Thing right now. Instead of looking over your shoulder, remember to always look ahead of you. Ask yourself, what more can I do that’s never been done? You don’t want to just maintain your influence – you want to increase it. Never being satisfied with where you are now, with what you have already done, is the secret to keeping those creative juices flowing.

How about you?

Have you noticed a dip in creativity after accepting a promotion?

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.
load comments (18)
  • Guest

    People in power ‘preferred riskier business plans’?? I find this hard to believe. Without acception every boss I’ve had since leaving uni has been highly risk averse. They have more to loose, terrified of failure and wont even consider a new option or pathway until its proven by someone else. Have I simply been very unlucky or is this a country specific thing?

  • Nina

    I feel the same ^^ seems like the one in charge takes fewer risks as they have more to lose. Also, what does unprotected sex have in common with creativity? Just because you’re more likely to take a stupid risk in that area doesn’t make you a better creative.

  • OlgaHerb

    Excellent article, Heidi. I might add that having a good crowdstorming tool (Bitrix24 or MindMeister) also helps creativity and motivation.

  • Aaron Morton

    I have seen people become more conservative when promoted. I put it down to the fact that they have worked hard to get there so fearful to lose the position. With examples like steve Jobs and Richard Branson, you’re right if they make a mistake they are not going to lose their position.

    However in positions of power i would say they become more creative, because they are exposed to more opportunities to grow. With early day creatives, sometimes the necessity to make money with their creation provides a stress that can inhibit creativity. When money is not an issue as much it becomes a more enjoyable mission to create something.

    Thanks, Aaron

    The Confidence Lounge

  • Pauroma

    Also, I think your creativity flow when you have and feel the power because at the same time you reduce the walls you had before. Now what you think is good, will be good. Where before, what you think was good was put down by your boss.

  • Kevin Dam

    Creativity is linked to the way we feel emotionally. If we have a secure job but aren’t happy with it then this can also lead to zero creativity juices flowing.

    Setting ourselves up in the right environment to be creative can also work as we thrive off those who are around us.

    Good article and I’d be interested to see more about what can conduce creativity besides being in a secure position of power.

    Thanks Heidi

  • Jay Oza

    One of the reason creativity suffers when people get promoted is that you don’t have lot of time to think alone. Thinking is hard and that gets you promoted, but then you can hit a creativity wall very quickly since the measurement is going to be different now.

  • jeffshattuck

    “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.”

    Sounds like an academic arguing for tenure. Besides, I’ve never come across a single creative person — or anyone else with a job — who wasn’t a little worried about ending up in a soup line.

  • Greg Jessiman

    A thought promoting article Heidi, thanks :-)

    Just like Aaron & Nina I’ve also experienced the converse, where instead of implementing their ambitious plans the new bosses become risk averse, and are more intent to defend their position through command and control vs. value added/gained by their new and innovative ideas.

    Everyone wants to become the boss, perhaps because it’s the ultimate recognition of success. Yet why is that that many competent people with fantastic ideas then change so fundamentally after promotion to the lofty heights of the management team?

    Instead of implementing the ambitious plans they had prior to their promotion, they simply add to an already towering pile of political Jenga bricks.

    I think there are two problems:
    1. Organisational: It’s still most common to promote people to management positions since they have simply “been around” longer and they “know the business”. Such organisations often don’t have the programs in place to help people make the successful transformation.

    If this is true then new bosses will be horribly overwhelmed in their new role, thereby adopting a command and control style is the only way they can hope to retain any sense of control.

    2. Personal Goals/Motivation: If someones reason for wanting to be “the boss” is because they simply want to decide what happens, or get a higher salary then they will never provide the edge necessary to strive in the competitive business climate.

    Organisations still promoting people based on how long they’ve been with the company will therefor seldom have the systems in place for helping to understand employees motivation. This can be catastrophic for workplace motivation and will result in the loss of talent and inability to attract new talent.

    I think there are many factors which will determine a managers risk aversion, it’s a complicated soup of personal skills & motivations, organisational maturity and the industry ones clients work in.

  • Kendol

    Luckily some people who rise to power have it no matter their circumstances.

  • EragonSaphira

    Agreed. My boss is the Creative Manager (with three designers and an admin) and he is the son of the boss of the company. Since he started last year, we’ve done so many ‘risky’ things, things that we would have been to scared to ask senior management for, but because he knew he ‘couldn’t’ be fired, he tried it and got it approved. There have been a couple of flops, and some things have been denied, but overall I think we are more productive, as a department, because we know that we have a leader that is not afraid to try the ‘out of the box’ ideas.

  • Jon Whelan

    I couldn’t have asked for this article to be published at a better time. I have the same problem. People judge you more when the spotlight is on you than before and they all look for reasons why they could do the job better instead of working with you as a team. Also what @google-d2efbd94bec768cf0b413f10a1a71131:disqus just said about being in an environment that allows you to feel creative helps. Watching over my back doesn’t.

  • David Berry

    It strikes me as cavalier to say that if you are vulnerable you should simply avoid focusing on your vulnerability. When you are vulnerable you are VULNERABLE and you are necessarily focused on the harm or loss that may come to you. Creativity requires full engagement (FLOW) and you can’t be engaged when you are worried about anything other than the present moment.

  • Brian

    It’s funny that as I’m reading this article all I could think about was much I disliked the head pic because of its lack of creativity.

  • Geoff Picus

    Heidi, how did you make the leap from a list of highly risky behaviors (‘hitting’ more often in blackjack, unprotected sex) to being more creative?

    I see the connection between being secure in one’s power and risk tolerance, but the example that comes to mind is more of the London Whale ( than someone who is truly creative.

    In the same vein as Greg, I think I would argue that rather than risk tolerance being a spur to creativity, it’s risk aversion that is a curb to creativity, a hindrance to the open-mindedness that allows creativity to make leaps.

  • brittanyerin

    Yes! I think this is one of the hardest parts about being a young creative person just starting out in the workplace. Either your bosses don’t trust you enough to work on things that require real originality or they’re too busy filling your plate with the busy work that “front-line employees” need to do. And — because I’m afraid of losing my job or not working my way up, I tend to play it more safe.

    I mean, I know that young people like me have to start somewhere, but it gets so frustrating. I can’t create, be really happy doing what it is I want to do, if I don’t have the time or trust of my managers! In the new, collaborative economy, I was hoping age or experience would become less and less of a barrier, but it still matters. No job — at least at my level — is secure.

  • brittanyerin

    Sometimes I think starting your own company is the only way. After all, who will fire you then??

  • brittanyerin

    I think it’s important to discuss the distinction between people in power vs. people not in power AND between people in power that are older vs. people in power that are younger. From my experience, I have found that people in power tend to take less risks if they are older — not necessarily because of age, but because they didn’t grow up in the new collaborative economy that values transparency and authenticity, etc. in business. As to where the younger bosses have, and just instinctively “get it.”

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