This Psychology Today blog post by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman describes some research about power and creativity. Kaufman describes a new study by Daniel Sligte and his colleagues. The researchers assigned participants to work in pairs on a task. In each pair, one participant was assigned to a position of power, while the other played the role of subordinate. Moreover, the low power participants in each pair were assigned to one of two conditions: stable power or unstable power. By unstable, the researchers meant that the participants were told the power positions may be reversed at some future point.
What did these scholars find? In the stable power condition, the powerful individuals exhibited more creativity. However, in the unstable power condition, the low power individuals displayed a higher level of creativity. The scholars explained their finding:
"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 results imply that providing our employees with a clear path to greater responsibility and authority may actually empower them to be more creative in the here and now. We've always known that autonomy can be empowering and motivating. In some sense, this study suggests that the mere possibility of future autonomy can be motivating and may yield improvements in creativity. Beyond that, the study reinforces the notion that creativity is not simply a trait with which we are born (or not born). Creativity may be impacted substantially by organizational structure and environment.