I've Got The Power! Innovation & Power Difference

The Journal of Organisational Behaviour has a fascinating article about the impact on power differences and group creativity. Two researchers from China explored how cultural power beliefs impacted interactions between leaders and group members - and how this mediated creativity.

Simply put - power difference is the acceptance of status levels within a group. Think back to high school - you knew who the cool kids were, and who the nerds were. A typical group of teenagers would have a high power difference - with an accepted array of power gaps between the members.

The flip side is a group where each member feels on the same status level as the other. These groups are characterised as having a low power difference - perhaps modelled best by a group of long-time friends, or a committed rugby team.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers discovered that these power relationships had a significant impact on innovation. 

Businesses with a high power difference were less likely to share ideas, less likely to accept ideas from a lower-level employee - and more likely to act on ideas from senior leaders, regardless of the quality or value of the idea.

Conversely, organisations with a low power difference were more likely to collaborate across functions, provide diverse feedback and select ideas based on merit - rather than on who submitted them.

The key, as the researchers concluded, was “The shared belief regarding inequality versus equality among people.”

And this is where it gets tricky. 

In New Zealand, a country that prides itself for equality, we all assume that we practice and model organisational equality. If we are in control of running an organisation - or have managerial responsibility - we always think that we create a culture of low power.

And yet - if we create a culture with significant power difference, hampering innovation - the employees who are at the bottom of the pile will not have the social capital to speak out. It’s a Catch-22.

So - how do we break this divide? 

We use science - where the facts don’t lie.

Utilising benchmarked surveys - anonymised to ensure honesty - allows organisations to measure their actual beliefs and practices about innovation and relationships - rather than the ones they put up on the wall. And when we get to the honest practices - we can begin to enact real change.

I remember one of my first client engagements - and the director of the organisation was waxing lyrical about how empowered employees were, and how everyone was free to share their ideas. He described a healthy organisation, flat and low in power difference.

However, when we dug under the hood - utilising surveys and interviews - a very different picture emerged. A picture of a micro-managing leader, who lacked trust in his employees. Someone who had to have a finger in every pie - and who didn’t take employee feedback seriously.

Where he had described a low-power culture existed a high-power culture.

And as a young consultant, I had to take a deep gulp, and deliver this damning news. To his credit - once he saw the data, supporting the observations - he recognised what had happened - and we began to create new habits and strategies to reduce the power difference.

Now, several years later, this organisation is a genuinely lovely place to work - and to work with - with employees free to share, disagree and work on projects without the fear of death-from-above.

How is the innovation power difference at your organisation? Is it a low-power dynamic - with freedom to try, disagree and challenge the ideas of superiors? Or is it a high-power battleground, with more fear than fluidity?