Are Your Company's Leaders Feeling Outshined By Their Creative Stars? Here's Why — and What You Need to Do About It. Understanding why they feel threatened is the key to ensuring they help, rather than hinder, the continued development of creativity in your organization.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
The demand for creative talent is perhaps stronger than ever. The World Economic Forum recently cited creative thinking as the second most important employee skill in 2023.
Likewise, a survey of business leaders conducted by Pew Research Center identified creativity as among the most frequently mentioned skills employees need to be successful.
Given such realities, many of today's workers face unique pressures to standout from their peers and establish a name for themselves as the "creative" in their organization.
But such pressures are not unique to lower-level employees. Being seen as creative is also becoming increasingly associated with effective leadership. One IBM survey, which focused on 1,500 CEOs across 60 countries and 33 different industries, found that "creativity is now the most important leadership quality for success in business, outweighing even integrity and global thinking."
In many ways, this makes intuitive sense. As business has become increasingly global and dynamic, members at all levels of the organizational hierarchy are expected to develop cutting-edge approaches to improving processes, procedures and practices they encounter in their role.
These trends, however, raise an important question: If employees are under pressure to be creative and creativity is becoming a key aspect of the leadership role, might managers feel threatened when their subordinates establish a reputation as creative?
Interested in this question, my coauthors and I conducted a study that was recently published in the Journal of Management. Here's what we found.
Leaders are likely to envy their employees' reputation for creativity
Within organizations, managers are often granted certain privileges (e.g., social influence, respect, control over resources and decision-making) not afforded to lower level employees. These privileges often become an expected part of the leadership role, which can be a problem when managers perceive that their subordinates suddenly have access to these same social advantages.
This explains why, in our study, we found that managers were indeed threatened by their creative employees. But not by their creative ability, per se, but rather the reputation they had for being creative.
Good ideas, especially those that are novel and practical, are statistically infrequent and highly sought after in today's organizations. Those who are seen as being able to consistently develop creative ideas are therefore likely to have considerable social influence because they are seen as possessing (and thus having control over) a valuable resource that others desire.
They may possess an aura of authority and even become admired by others because they are seen as a source of knowledge and information that can help inform others' decisions. This is one reason why employees who establish a reputation as creative will work hard to maintain such impressions. However, as our findings suggest, it is also why the managers we studied reported feeling envious of their employees' creative reputations and, in some cases, attempted to thwart their advantages.
Some leaders experience and manage their envy more constructively than others
Despite its designation as one of the "seven deadly sins," envy can also have a bright side. Envy is a social emotion that alerts us to when our position in the social hierarchy is threatened and motivates us to take action to catch up.
Research shows, however, that the motivational component of envy can be felt in two very different ways. On the one hand, we might feel the urge to thwart or discount the envied other's advantages, hoping they eventually fall a few rungs down the social ladder. On the other hand, we might instead feel motivated or even inspired to better our own relative standing through greater effort and self-improvement.
In either case, we're still experiencing the painful feelings of envy. Yet, the former reflects a malicious form of envy directed at diminishing the envied other while the latter reflects a benign form of envy directed at improving the envious self.
In our study, we found that these two forms of envy were crucial in determining whether managers would try to sabotage those employees known for their creativity or, conversely, try to learn from them. Specifically, we found that while managers' feelings of malicious envy were associated with attempts to jeopardize their employee's creative output by withholding needed information and resources from them, managers' feelings of benign envy were associated with attempts to learn from the envied employee by asking them for advice and assistance when developing creative ideas.
The key is to build leaders' confidence in their own creative abilities
While it might not always be possible to prevent managers from envying their creative employees, it is possible to help them channel those feelings in ways that are less hostile and more productive. Research suggests that people are more likely to experience the useful, benign form of envy when they believe they are capable of improving their relative standing in the first place.
The rationale is that if you believe devoting the necessary effort will enable you to catch up to the competition, you are more likely to focus on finding ways to better yourself; otherwise, you might feel the need to focus on ways to stifle the competition's advantages.
This is precisely what we found distinguished those managers who focused on learning from their creative employees from those focused on preventing them from being successful. When managers felt confident in their own ability to develop creative ideas, they were more likely to channel their feelings of envy in productive ways by asking the employee for ideas and assistance.
Fortunately, building managers' creative ability, as well as their confidence in their creative ability, can be trained. Some ways include teaching managers skills related to cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking and narrative cognition, ensuring that the connection between their creative efforts and successes are clear and recognized (or providing feedback so they understand how to improve).