Jennifer Mueller, University of San Diego – Leadership Resisting Creativity

Leaders say they welcome innovation and new ideas, but do they in practice?

Jennifer Mueller, associate professor of management at the University of San Diego, explains why many organizations actually reject creativity.

My research examines the biases people have against creative ideas and creative people. I wrote a paper, “The Bias Against Creativity” that went viral and was downloaded more than 65,000 times. Before joining the faculty at the University of San Diego School of Business, I taught for seven years at the Wharton School. I live in the Solana Beach neighborhood of San Diego and enjoy mountain biking, backpacking, and fussing over my dachshund, Sammy.

Leadership Resisting Creativity


Leaders say they want creativity yet they chronically reject new ideas and solutions and embrace the familiar. To figure out this puzzle, my research team and I asked a question: Could leaders simply not realize they are biased against creativity? To answer this we used a reaction-time test called the IAT – the Implicit Attitude Test – commonly used when studying racial bias that makes it harder for participants to fake their responses.

When we primed students with a mindset around their being “one best solution” – what I call a how/best mindset – participants explicitly said they valued creativity, even as their reaction times told us they associated words like “creativity” with negative words like “vomit.” If leaders and their organizations truly desire self-disruption, they have to learn this new skill of how to shift their mindset to help them become more comfortable with the new.

How can organizations break through these barriers? One solution is an idea pitching framework called “FAB” that stands for Fit, Aha, and Broaden. When a person feels the Fit, has an Aha moment, and Broadens his or her thinking, he or she will feel interested and even joyful in considering a new idea.

We have found that organizations also need to restructure to accept new ideas. It’s not that there aren’t good ideas, but that there are too many roadblocks against adopting. Designers, generators and other creative types should be at the table with executives in reviewing new ideas.

The silver lining in all of this is that we can learn that the decision to adopt a creative idea is more of a psychological process than a rational one. Once we understand the psychology that has been holding us back, we can learn to adopt the ideas and solutions that will make our organizations and companies better.


  1. Glen McGhee