Jan Hills writes on neuroscience and how it can improve personal performance, team performance, organisational outcomes and leadership behaviour. She has had a varied career in HR, including over 10 years as a consultant and coach. Jan now runs Head Heart + Brain, a consultancy dedicated to brain-savvy HR and to improving all aspects of the organisation through the findings of neuroscience.

It is not unusual to see creativity on a leadership framework or listed by CEOs as a must-have attribute. But whilst we say we value creativity and want more of it, do we really? Or is our brain set up to find creativity as threatening?

Researchers at Wharton found that leaders who came up with new and creative ideas were rated higher as a leader but trusted less than cautious leaders. One reason for this may be that leaders who generate new ideas, especially if they generate lots of them may call into question their cohesion with the group. They become seen as less similar or they may be perceived as questioning the group norms.

New ideas create a sense of threat especially when it is unclear how they will be implemented and the outcome they will create. Often people view new and creative ideas as of value in theory, but are quite reluctant to actually do something with the ideas.

New ideas create a sense of threat especially when it is unclear how they will be implemented and the outcome they will create. 

Researchers Mueller et al at Cornell investigated this paradox. The researchers found that we often have an unconscious bias against a new idea because it comes with added uncertainty.

To adopt the idea we say we want, increases the risk of failure which could mean our reputation is impacted and we can’t be absolutely certain it will work. Nor is it easy to provide practical examples of what it looks like when it is completed or implemented.

These factors mean we resist, reject, or dilute new and novel ideas, to the degree that they are no longer new nor do they solve the original issue or goal. The motivation it seems is to reduce uncertainty and gain more certainty about the outcome by making the idea less different, less new, and creative.

This poses a challenge for innovators and leaders of change because for the idea to be adopted, we need to do at least one of two things.

First, find ways of making the idea as detailed and accessible as possible; get people to imagine, in some detail, what it would be like so they have a felt sense of how it will be when the change or idea is actually the way they work.

Essentially focus on creating increased certainty that it can work, without damaging uniqueness or compromising the ultimate goal. The other more challenging task for leaders is to make their followers less concerned with uncertainty itself and more open to taking a risk.

We can perhaps do this by emphasizing the other positives: the enhancements to reputation that being the sponsor of the new idea could bring, or reflecting on how past uncertain scenarios have played out to their advantage, or what is similar rather than different in the new approach.

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