The Dark Side of Creative People

Companies looking to kick-start innovation by hiring more creative people may want to think twice about this strategy, based on the findings of new research.  In a series of studies summarized in a recent issue of Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, Professors Francesca Gino (Harvard) and Dan Ariely (Duke, author of the best seller Predictably Irrational) found that intrinsically creative people tend to cheat more than noncreative people. In addition, the researchers found that inducing creative thinking tends to trigger unethical behavior.  The findings suggest that managers should consider the risks before unreservedly encouraging creative thinking.

Philosopher René Descartes, in his famous 1641 treatise Meditations on First Philosophy, introduced the idea of an “evil genius,” a powerful force of nature who is equally smart and deceitful. The World has experienced many examples of the evil genius including Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Professor and Unabomber Ted Kazynski and Wall Street villain Bernie Madoff. Clearly, Descartes was on to something.  Is there a correlation between creativity/genius and unethical behavior?

Gino and Ariely explored this question in a number of experiments involving employees and students. In one study, the researchers surveyed 99 employees at an American advertising agency, where some roles (e.g., art direction, copywriting) required much more creativity than others.  Gino and Ariely asked the participants to reply to a questionnaire on how likely they were to engage in ethically questionable work behaviors such as “inflate your business expense report” and “take home office supplies from work.”  In another phase of the study, the researchers explored how participants behaved when faced with various hypothetical scenarios that were ethically ambiguous in nature.  Finally, Gino and Ariely looked at whether promoting creativity within a group would trigger an increase in cheating afterwards.

Research results

The study’s findings were telling:

  • Inherently creative people cheated more than noncreative types. Specifically, participants who had scored high on a creativity scale were the most likely to exhibit unethical behavior, especially when there was a potential for monetary gain. 
  • People who have been primed or induced to be more creative were more likely to display unethical behavior.
  • The higher the creativity required for a job, the higher the level of self-reported dishonesty.

Cogito ergo sum

By their very nature, creative individuals have an elastic moral sense that helps them rationalize different behaviors and deal with ambiguous situations. According to Gino, the findings suggest that “…moral flexibility is the mechanism explaining why being in a creative mindset or being a creative person puts you more at risk to do the wrong thing. Our ability to justify things is significantly greater if we are in a creative mindset or when we are creative people.”

Management implications

Obviously, creativity is not a bad thing.  It should be part of most performance measurement systems and corporate priorities, albeit with structural and process safeguards.  In their search for innovative thinking, leaders should be careful not to staff their teams exclusively with creative types or give the decision making responsibilities solely to creative people.  Moreover, Gino cautions that, “As a manager, if you’re highlighting the importance of being creative and innovative, it’s important to make sure that you’re stressing the presence of ethics, too.  She goes on to hope “that managers will start thinking about how to structure the creative process in such a way that they can keep ethics in check, triggering the good behavior without triggering the bad behavior.”

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