Want to get promoted? Stifle your creativity

December 14, 2010: 11:50 AM ET

Creativity is good for your career, right? Not necessarily. Especially in uncertain times, sticking with the status quo may get you ahead faster.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

If you're bubbling over with fresh, innovative ideas, consider keeping them to yourself -- at least if you hope to reach senior management. That's the conclusion of a series of three new studies by professors at Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Indian School of Business.

The research clearly shows that "when people voice creative ideas, they are viewed by others as having less leadership potential," says Jack Goncalo, who teaches organizational behavior at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

That may come as a surprise, since many companies claim to prize innovative thinking.

But Goncalo, who led the studies, points out that our deeply ingrained expectations of "creative people" and "effective leaders" are often at loggerheads: Creative types may be seen as mercurial and unpredictable, while leaders "are expected to reduce uncertainty and uphold the norms of the group," he says.

That's particularly true in times of economic uncertainty. The data suggest that, when the going gets tough, people crave the security that comes from having leaders who preserve the status quo.

One study of 346 employees working in jobs that required creative problem solving showed that few of them were rewarded with promotions. What it means, Goncalo says, is that "creative people are getting filtered out on their way to the top."

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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