Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

How Power Influences Creativity

How are power and creativity related?

Having, or at the very least perceiving that you have power and control over your environment is important. Those who feel as though they have little control over their status, aspirations, and wealth are prone to depression. On the other hand, those who feel they have too much control are at risk of grandiosity, delusion, and greed. Nonetheless, the striving for control is a healthy human drive and power hierarchies are a fundamental feature of any social organization. The fact remains, however, that the more power one person has, the less power others have. The implications of this should not be understated, especially when it comes to fostering creativity and bringing out the best in everyone.

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Power relates to the ability to influence others. People can acquire power through climbing the ladder, or possessing valuable cultural capital, such as knowledge and expertise. Power literally changes the way you see the world around you, influencing the way you perceive and act in the world. Powerful people process information more abstractly and flexibly, are less influenced by situational cues, take more risks, act more swiftly when facing a challenging obstacle, behave more in a goal-consistent manner, and are more approach-oriented. Having power frees one from influence from others, and leads to feelings of safety and security. Since being powerful feels so good, powerful people think and act so as to maintain and increase their power.

Powerless individuals, on the other hand, tend to think and act to protect against possible threats. Powerless people avoid risky situations, focus on potential losses, and tend to have a narrow attentional focus. The implications here for creativity should become obvious. The mindset of those in power promotes cognitive flexibility, set-breaking and abstract thinking. Therefore, powerful individuals also are more likely to be creative than their less powerful counterparts, who are left with little incentive to be creative.

The relationship between power and creativity may depend, however, on both the stability of the power hierarchy and the potential payoff for those exerting creative effort. In an environment with an unstable power hierarchy, those with low power might become more creative when being creative is conducive to moving up the ladder. Powerful people, on the other hand, may display the highest creativity levels under conditions where creativity allows them to maintain or increase their power.

This is exactly what a recent research study conducted by Daniel Sligte and his colleagues found. Participants were told that they would engage in a task in which they had to work with another participant. Participants were told that the higher power person would be in charge of the division of labor, monitor progress and assess performance of the low power individual after completion of the task and that the rewards of the low power person would be based on this assessment.

Participants were then randomly assigned to a position of power or a position of subordinance. They were also randomly assigned to a stable power condition or an unstable power condition. In the stable power condition, participants were told that power positions were randomly assigned and power positions would remain unchanged. In the unstable power condition, the participants were told that power positions might be switched at some point during the experience. Before participating in the group task, subjects took a test of creativity and were told either that the test was relevant to effective functioning in a high power position or it was not.

When power was stable, high power individuals were more creative than lower power individuals. The effects were particularly pronounced when creativity was relevant to maintaining power. When power was unstable, however, the pattern was reversed: low power individuals were more flexible thinkers, were less avoidant, and had a global attentional focus compared to higher power individuals, particularly when performance was relevant to achieving power. This global attentional focus, in turn, led to higher creativity.

These results have important implications for boosting creativity and productivity in the workforce, education, and society. Creativity is not just a trait that people either have or they don't; motivation plays a huge role in whether someone will apply their brainpower or not. (Recent recent suggests that IQ test performance is also a function of both ability and motivation.)

This research suggests that when we give people the possibility to gain power, they will show a boost in creativity if we make it explicit that there is a reason to be more creative. This works best in unstable power hierarchies, where it's clear that there isn't just one dominant force and everyone else is doomed to a life of subservience. As the researchers note,

"For low power individuals, power instability is empowering, leading them to act and behave as high power individuals...Having unstable low power leads to feelings of confidence and self-efficacy, especially when low power individuals can gain power by being creative. They may be more confident about their abilities and also perceive that they have the 'power' to change their situation."

The way most businesses and schools are currently structured in the United States, where those not in power are pressured to follow instructions from managers or teachers, and creativity is not valued or shown to be relevant to gaining power, is not allowing us to reach our maximum creative potential as a country. Educators are business leaders may want to re-think how they structure their environment so as to keep people motivated.

The danger with power hierarchies is that they are self-reinforcing. Powerful individuals are more likely to act forcefully and confidently, take more risks, display more creativity, use ideology more frequently (such as stereotyping and legitimizing myths), and choose jobs that forward their own interests-- and all of these behaviors allow powerful individuals to acquire even more resources and influence. Taken to the extreme, power hierarchies can result in an environment where everyone else is left feeling powerless.

The important question is whether this sort of 'winner takes all' environment brings out the best in most people. The research is clear that it does not. As for how to motivate creativity in everyone, including leaders, it might be possible to design structures where those in power feel as though their creativity will allow them to maintain their position while at the same time allowing those not in power to feel as though they, too, can eventually gain power through their creativity. There may be many different ways to implement such a system but however it is done, the researchers make one thing clear: "when the power hierarchy is unstable, those lacking power hold the power to creativity."

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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