Some bosses undermine employees known for their creativity: UBC study

In today’s highly competitive business world, creativity has emerged as one of the most prized employee traits. Others look to creative workers for inspiration and guidance. But having a reputation for creativity can put those stand-out employees into the crosshairs of envious bosses, a UBC Sauder School of Business study has found. 

The news isn’t all bad, however: it turns out that some envious bosses tap into their employees’ talents, and in the process elevate themselves and their most creative workers.

For the study, researchers surveyed more than 500 workers and supervisors at a large Chinese automobile company that’s an industry leader in developing, manufacturing, and distributing electric and commercial vehicles. 

The employees worked in a range of high-tech areas — from automation to battery engineering — but all were involved in research and development. The recruited supervisors, meanwhile, were not only expected to lead teams of creative talents: they were charged with inspiring creative solutions to complex problems.

Over the course of three surveys, supervisors were asked to rate their employees’ reputation for creativity with questions such as, “People go to this employee when they want new ideas” and “Others in the organization often expect this employee to contribute innovative ideas.”

At the same time, the supervisors were asked to rate their confidence in their own creativity (“I have confidence in my ability to solve problems creatively”), and about their level of envy of their creative subordinates. The researchers also measured whether that envy was malicious (“This subordinate has something that I want for myself and wish to take away from him/her”) or benign (“I try to improve myself as I notice that this subordinate is better than me”).

The researchers found that supervisors experienced significant levels of envy of subordinates who had a reputation for creativity. What’s more, they found that supervisors who had low confidence in their own creativity were more likely to experience malicious envy, while leaders who had faith in their own creativity were more likely to experience benign envy. 

“When the supervisor has a strong belief that they are creative, they’re more likely to exhibit self-improvement and help-seeking behaviours. So if you have a reputation for creativity, a supervisor might approach you and seek your advice,” says Lingtao Yu (he/him/his), the UBC Sauder Assistant Professor who co-authored the study with Joel Carnevale and Lynne Vincent of Syracuse University, Lei Huang of Auburn University, and Wei He of Nanjing University. 

When the leader feels they’re lacking in creativity, they are more likely to feel a strong threat from an employee with a reputation for creativity, and engage in dysfunctional behaviours.

“When the leader feels malicious envy, they’ll actually keep a distance from that employee, and they will reduce their interaction with them,” says Professor Yu. “And sometimes they might engage in social undermining behaviour: they might make negative comments about the employee in front of others, for example.”

Titled Outshined by Creative Stars: A Dual-Pathway Model of Leader Reactions to Employees’ Reputation for Creativity, the study makes an important distinction between employees who are especially creative and those who have a reputation for creativity, because employees who were known for their creativity were far more likely to be targets of supervisors’ envy than those who were creative but didn’t have that reputation. “We measured employees’ creativity and found that it's actually only the reputation for creativity that matters,” Professor Yu explains. “If we only look at creativity, there is no significant effect.”

Many studies have examined peer-to-peer envy, but the UBC study, which was published in the Journal of Management, is the first of its kind to investigate the direct link between creativity and supervisor envy. 

Professor Yu says the findings are important because, especially over the last decade, businesses have put an enormous emphasis on promoting creativity — especially in high-tech industries. At the same time, it’s inevitable that supervisors compare themselves against their workers.

“Social comparison is dominant within these organizations, and we found that a reputation for creativity is a really big factor that comes with emotional and behavioural consequences in supervisors,” says Professor Yu, who is working on a study that looks at the impact of envy on workers with a reputation for creativity.

As a result, business leaders should take a more balanced view of creativity, he says, and recognize its importance, but also its potential impact on interpersonal interactions within the company. At the same time, supervisors should be aware of their own ingrained biases.

“This is something we want to signal to the supervisors: when your employee has a reputation for creativity, it's not always a bad thing. It's not always a threat. You can actively approach them and seek creativity-related ideas,” Professor Yu advises. “And that will ultimately contribute to your leadership success as well as to the team's success.”