Why Power Stifles Innovation

Why Power Stifles InnovationWhen it comes to innovation, we know that open-mindedness, deferring judgment, including diverse inputs from diverse people, and fostering collaboration inside and outside the organization are all success factors when going for big ideas that will make a big difference.

But recent research from USC’s Marshall School of Business in collaboration with the London Business School, University of Illinois, and Northwestern University reveals an alarming finding for any leader with an innovation agenda:  when we feel a sense of personal power, we overestimate our ability to make good decisions, which can lead to higher risk-taking coupled with poor decision-making.

Researchers conducted a series of experiments that put people in touch with their feelings of power or powerlessness. Subjects completed a “leadership questionnaire” and received one of two random results; they were told either they had an aptitude for strong leadership or, they “may not be as competent as others.”  Immediately following this feedback, subjects were asked to bet money on how well they would answer various trivia questions. Across the board, researchers found that those who felt most powerful following their questionnaire results overestimated their abilities and actually lost the most money.

This research reveals a leadership paradox when it comes to innovation.  As leaders gain more formal authority and power in their organizations, many assume that they need (or should need) less input, critique, and feedback from others.  But these things are exactly the ingredients that foster new thinking and breakthrough innovation.  The researchers in this study concluded that, “The most effective leaders bring people around them who critique them.  As a power holder, the smartest thing you might ever do is bring people together who will inspect your thinking and who aren’t afraid to challenge your ideas.”

In my experience, most organizations don’t see “humility” as a critical competency for their leaders, let alone for driving innovation.  And not every leader creates an environment where their own ideas can be challenged in a productive way.  Perhaps it’s time to consider that real power comes from realizing that we don’t always have to have all the answers – and that leading innovation is fundamentally about continually challenging our own assumptions and ideas in ways that keep our egos in check, our learning continuously evolving, and our breakthroughs moving forward.

image credit: leapfrogging.com

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Why Power Stifles InnovationSoren Kaplan is co-Founder/Principal of InnovationPoint where he leads strategic initiatives for global organizations in the areas of new product, service and business model innovation for Visa, Disney, Colgate-Palmolive, Kimberly-Clark, PepsiCo, Frito-Lay and other international brands and firms. He led HP’s innovation & strategy group during the 1990′s, has appeared in Fast Company, Strategy & Leadership, The International Handbook on Innovation among others publications, and is the author of Leapfrogging.

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4 Responses to Why Power Stifles Innovation

  1. Jim Bowman says:


    what a great post! thanks for sharing this research.

    what I hear you reminding us is that it’s still all about people and our relationships with them. if as leaders we treat people well and value them, connect with them as critical parts of the whole, we get amazing participation, engagement and creative input. in a very real way it’s like opening up the power of the master mind and the collective results almost always exceed those of one leader or one member.

    I loved your finishing thought, “leading innovation is fundamentally about continually challenging our own assumptions and ideas in ways that keep our egos in check, our learning continuously evolving, and our breakthroughs moving forward.” said another way, if our authentic goal is breakthrough new business growth (vs. feeding our ego), we, as leaders, family members, friends and coworkers, will seek input, critique, and feedback from others, make better decisions and thereby leave the world a better place than we found it. making a contribution is perhaps our highest calling.

    keep those great posts coming!

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  3. Soren,

    This is interesting stuff, but I think there’s more to it. I don’t think it’s power, per se, that’s the issue. It’s the manager’s emotional maturity in handling power that can stifle innovation. Sure, feeling more powerful may make someone impose their views and opinions. But, another person may disperse power to their own team members, helping them be more able to take on the necessary challenges. The question is what determines the response to ‘managing power’? The answer, I believe, is the emotional maturity of the manager. See this link for some provocative thinking on this issue: http://www.burnhamrosen.com/downloads/LEADERSHIP.pdf

    V. interesting area! Rob

  4. Zephyr says:

    Soren, thanks for this post. Wonderful to see some science validating this perspective.

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