Pitching Ideas Successfully Can Hinge on Your Project Leader’s Style

Professor Kim Elsbach shares new research examines leadership personality traits and how they affect ideas being accepted and rejected.

Quick Summary:

  • Team members should align their idea pitches to the style of their creative project leader
  • Creative project leaders most often self-define themselves as “idealists” or “pragmatists”
  • Idealists are more likely to be receptive to low-conviction pitches.
  • Pragmatists are more likely to be receptive to high-conviction pitches

Creative collaborators can gain greater acceptance of their ideas at work if they customize their idea pitches to the personal identities of project leaders, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis.

Professor Kimberly Elsbach of the Graduate School of Management observed the interactions of collaborative researchers working in teams in the R&D division of a large, multi-national food company.

“I found that when creative project leaders self-defined as ‘idealists’ (i.e., they viewed themselves as artistic, independent, and unique in their creative approach) they were more likely to accept ideas given via a ‘low-conviction’ approach (i.e., presenting general and vague ideas with neutral emotion and a low degree of certainty in their viability),” Elsbach explained in her study.


“By contrast, I found that when project leaders self-defined as ‘pragmatists’ (i.e., they viewed themselves as practical, collaborative, and rational in their creative approach) they were more likely to accept ideas given via a ‘high-conviction’ approach (i.e., presenting rational, logical and specific ideas with passion and a high degree of certainty in their viability).”

Elsbach says most prior research has focused on identifying how to generate and promote creative ideas within a team, without considering how those ideas might be taken or rejected by other team members.

She found that a majority of people are going to self-define as pragmatists, while idealists only make up 15%-20% of potential creative collaborators.

“I don’t want people to give up on good ideas, so if you’ve presented it with a high-conviction approach and it doesn’t work, try a low-conviction approach before giving up on the idea, or vice versa,” Elsbach says.

She also notes that, “what’s difficult about creative teams, is there’s usually one person designated as the project lead. And that person has a lot of control over how a project goes. We found that there were a lot of cases where that person had almost prematurely, a knee-jerk rejection of ideas that were not presented in the way they liked.”

Elsbach says her own past research shows that these leaders reject ideas because they are presented in ways that are threatening to their creative self-concepts (i.e., being an idealist or a pragmatist).  

“For an idealist, a super enthusiastic idea-pitch could be threatening to them because such a high-conviction approach suggested that the collaborator wanted to take over their project and change their vision,” Elsbach says. “We found that a lot of idea givers intuitively understood these barriers, and they developed ways of giving ideas that were less threatening to idealists. They used a low-conviction approach that would lead their idealist project leader to at least consider the idea, and ultimately be more likely to incorporate it into the project.”

Elsbach’s study, “Giving ideas that won’t get rejected: how personal identity relates to idea-taking in creative collaboration,” was published in June in the journal Innovation: Organization and Management.

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