Research has shown that power—determined at work by factors including social capital, organizational hierarchy, and underrepresentation —affects not only how comfortable people are in expressing their ideas, but how well they can generate those ideas in the first place.
For insights on how to make creativity more inclusive, we reached out to Brian Lucas, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the author of a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology examining how to bridge the creativity-power divide. Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
What does your research say about the relationship between power and creativity?
Generally speaking, whether you feel more powerful or less powerful changes your psychology quite a bit. If you feel powerful—maybe that’s because you have a higher rank, maybe you have control over resources, maybe you are part of a societal group that tends to be valued more, or maybe you have skill sets that are valued more—it changes the way that you think about things. You become a little less concerned about what other people think of you. You get a little less concerned about whether other people are going to reject your ideas. You become more willing to take risks, and it actually facilitates abstract thinking, the ability to help us see connections between disparate things. As you can imagine, all of those things would tend to have a positive impact on creativity, or our ability to generate new ideas that are both novel and useful.
So it's not only that power makes you more willing to share your ideas—it actually impacts the quality of those ideas.
Yes. It impacts both the way that you think, which could influence the types of ideas you come up with, and it influences how you think about other people, which could make you more willing to share your ideas with others.
Can you walk me through your latest study on this?
We ran three studies that all have somewhat similar protocols, so I'll explain one in depth. All of these were laboratory experiments, where we had university undergrads come into the laboratory, and the first step was manipulating power to make some people feel more powerful versus less powerful. The second step was having them engage in a creativity task. For that first step, we randomly assigned people to either a manager role or an employee role, and people think that they're being assigned to their roles based on their leadership potential. So the managers are thinking that, at least in the dyad, they're the ones with higher leadership potential. They're given control over resources, they're given decision making power, all things that mimic what make people feel powerful in the workplace.
Separately, we have them individually work on creativity tasks. These were all tasks related to product development and idea generation—for instance, in our first study, people were told to come up with new ideas for scented candles. We would take the ideas that people generate and have a separate group of people rate those ideas for novelty, and then we’d look and see if there were differences across conditions. In that first study, what we found was that when we had people do this task for about a minute, the people in the high-power roles generated more novel ideas than the people in the low-power roles. However, in the second round, where we told them to just do work on the task again, the novelty of the low-power people basically caught up to the high-power participants. Their ideas became more novel, while the high-power participants’ ideas basically stayed the same.
Why might that be the case?
We don't directly empirically measure that mechanism, but there are a number of theoretical arguments that we could make, and there are a couple that we ruled out. A lot of times, feeling low-power, you feel a little more constrained by the situation, maybe less willing or less able to come up with those more novel connections. There's other research showing that just engaging in the act of creativity itself can make you feel liberated, and it can make you feel less constrained by your situations. So the logic here is that that first warmup round is allowing the low-power people to essentially get into the mindset of a high-power person. So by that second round after the warmup period, they're generating ideas that are just as novel as their high-power counterparts.
There are a couple other explanations that we empirically rule out in the paper. One plausible explanation could be that high-power people just don't try as hard in the second round—maybe they've come up with all their good ideas in round one, so they're like, ‘Oh, well, why should I generate more good ideas?’ But that's generally not what we find. In the second round, the high-power people's ideas are just as good as in the first round. So it's not that their performance is declining when we allow motivation to vary. If they're unconstrained with the time limit in the second round, we find that the high-power and the low-power people spend the same amount of time working on the task, and they generate about the same number of ideas.
What might a warmup look like in the real world, beyond asking people to do the same work twice?
Generally speaking, what I'd prescribe is to just allow more time to work on creative tasks. That way maybe your first couple ideas could be treated as a warmup that lead you into those subsequent better ideas. Another version of it could just be something like an icebreaker. A lot of team leaders will do icebreakers at the beginning of a team meeting just to get people warmed up and get their minds moving. You could easily imagine a version of that taking on aspects of a creativity task or an idea-generation task. I think it would have those same kind of warmup team-building benefits, but then also it would warm up people’s creativity.
So does this idea apply to both group and individual brainstorms?
We only did individual independent brainstorms, so our data can't speak to the group level. But if we think about those mechanisms or the reasons why we think it's working, you could imagine it having a similar effect. If it's the case that the warmup is kind of liberating the psychology of those lower-power participants, you could imagine it having similar benefits in a group setting, where potentially the fear of speaking up might be the thing that's constraining your ideas.
It would depend a little bit on how power is measured or operationalized. For instance, if it's operationalized as hierarchical rank, there's some evidence to suggest that egalitarian teams, flatter teams, will generate more creative ideas than hierarchical teams. And the reason being probably what you might imagine: Basically, when the boss is in the room, it constrains people's willingness to speak up.
Do you have any advice for ways to mitigate that?
One of the most effective ways to do that, if the boss does have to be in the room, is to make sure that the boss refrains from sharing their opinion. They probably have some idea of what they want to do, maybe some idea of what direction the product or the solution should go in. They should very much refrain from saying that until other people have spoken their turn. Because what's going to happen is if they speak first, the whole conversation is going to anchor on whatever the boss says, which almost defeats the purpose of a brainstorming session.
One of your other studies found that embarrassing stories can help increase creativity in group settings. Are there any other tactics that might help the people in the room with less power to feel more creative?
The embarrassment study has a similar logic to it. So the idea in that paper is that if everyone goes around and shares an embarrassing story—as compared to, say, a neutral story or even a story that makes you look good—it levels the playing field where everyone is feeling the same level of embarrassment, which means nobody should be feeling embarrassed, which allows people to more readily speak up. So things that can level the playing field like that, whether the inequity is around power or even just confidence. Doing something like sharing an embarrassing story can equalize that. Or in the case of power, giving people time to warm up can help to equalize that.
What about encouraging creativity in a broader sense, apart from specific tasks?
One of the best ways that they can do that is a manifestation of supporting creativity on a specific task, which is just creating a culture around this. If you encourage creativity on a specific task or you encourage psychological safety on a specific task, if you do that enough times with enough tasks, that's going to create an environment or a culture that encourages creativity and that encourages psychological safety. So if employees have that in the back of their minds, then that's going to encourage them to think about creative ideas and offer up creative ideas even in situations where they're not specifically prompted to.
There are a number of studies now where if you bring participants into a lab and you have them do an idea-generation task, and in one condition you tell them, ‘We really want your most creative ideas,’ those people give you more creative ideas. It's not surprising—they're basically following instructions. But I think it's a very powerful demonstration that one thing that organizations and managers often overlook is that if you tell employees that you want their creative ideas, they're going to be more likely to give you their creative ideas.
You’ve also found that someone’s mental model of creativity impacts how creativity shows up in their own work. Can you share more about that?
In that research, what we argue is that there are basically two ways that people tend to think about how creativity gets done. They derive from our very real experiences of being creative, which tends to either happen one of two ways at the moment of idea generation. One way is through insight: We have that ‘aha’ moment, where the idea kind of pops into our head and maybe we're not even sure where it came from. The second way is through production and persistence, deliberately or logically deriving a solution to a problem.
There's good evidence that creative ideas come from both of those routes, and that's one of the reasons why it’s kind of hard to create a playbook for creativity: because they are opposites. The production route is all about deliberate, deliberate work, planning, getting in there, whereas the insight route might be about taking a step back and going and doing something else. You can't do them at the same time. And so I think the importance of the mental models is just understanding that those are actually two very different ways of approaching creative work.
So for you as an individual, it could be important to think about, which of those models are you subscribing to? Are you overly subscribing to one model, or are you more balancing both of them? If you only subscribe to the insight model and you think that you should be going and walking through the park and meditating, you might not finish your work. And then on the flip side, if you're overly subscribing to the production model, you might be coming up with a large quantity of ideas, but maybe they're not that good. Maybe they're all pretty similar to what's already being done. Maybe you can step back and look for other sources of inspiration. So at a personal level, I think it's important to understand those models so you can understand and regulate your own creative behaviors.
On the managerial level, it's also important to recognize that there are different ways of approaching creativity. If a manager and employee have a mismatch between their models, that can create misunderstandings about how the work is getting done. For instance, if the manager really subscribes to this production model—’I really want to see you getting in there, generating ideas’—whereas the employee subscribes to the insight model and thinks that a walk around the park is actually the most productive thing to do right now, you could imagine there being clashes right there. The manager thinks the employee's slacking off, and the employee thinks that they're doing exactly what they need to do to be creative.
What are some ways that teams or managers might be able to avoid those clashes?
One of the best ways to do it is to just have conversations around how creative work gets done. One of the most valuable things about that insight versus production dichotomy is just having language to talk about creativity. These could be pre-planning meeting discussions, they could be part of debriefs, but just understanding how people approach their work. And then understanding that there are different ways to do that, and either getting on the same page about it or just coming to an understanding about how each person prefers to do their work.
So is it the case that most people tend to lean more in one direction or the other in terms of their creative model?
We're doing some empirical work on that. Right now we don't have empirical evidence on it. But the theoretical argument is that generally speaking, yes, people tend to either subscribe more to the insight model or the production model. If it is the case that they wholeheartedly endorse both models, it's typically the case that you can only have one dominant at the same time. It's kind of like a Necker cube, if you're familiar with that visual illusion: It's a 3D line drawing of a box where if you look at it in one light, one side looks like it's forward, but then if you kind of close your eyes or squint, then it kind of looks like the other side is the side that's forward. Both sides can't be prominent at the same time—one has to be forward and one has to be backwards. And that's how I think about the two models: Even if you wholeheartedly subscribe to both the insight and the production model, at any given time while you're working, you can really only prioritize one of them. You can either step back and let the idea incubate, or you can get in there and generate ideas. You can't do both at the same time.
Does power play a role in this at all?
There's not good evidence on that, so I wouldn't feel comfortable saying either way. But one thing that we can say is that power does influence our thinking. So you could imagine that the ability to switch back and forth between the insight model of the production model could be facilitated by power. When you feel more powerful, you might have more bandwidth to switch back and forth between those models. You might feel more confident in asserting the type of work style that you prefer. Now, those are conceptual speculations.
Anything else you wanted to mention?
With the warmup article, an important takeaway there is understanding that there are going to be power differences in every organization, even amongst people at the same rank. You could think about social capital, you could think about intellectual capital. Maybe people are of a function that's more valued at the organization versus less. Or maybe they're part of a societal group that's more valued by the organization versus less. So all of those things can coalesce into a person feeling higher or lower power, even if they're at the same rank. And it's important to understand these little nudges that we can do to restructure work or to change the way we think about work that could help level the playing field for people.