We prize creativity. Being able to produce a novel and useful idea, solution, or product is what fuels innovation and differentiates you from competitors. This helps explain why, in a recent global survey, more than 1,500 corporate and public sector leaders reported that creativity is the most important quality a leader must have.
However, being creative also has an undeniable dark side—one that can be very costly for companies if left unchecked. Research has shown that while creative people are adept at coming up with new ideas, they can also be more likely to engage in morally questionable behaviors. In a set of studies, Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely at Duke University found that creative thinkers are better at rationalizing dishonesty than uncreative thinkers. “Thinking outside the box” can lead to acting unethically.
In our research, we’ve found that identifying as a creative person can
lead someone to be dishonest. This is because, at least in the U.S., creativity is often celebrated as a special attribute. The idea that creativity is rare leads to a sense of entitlement; if you are creative, you see yourself as more deserving than others. Leaders reinforce this when they don’t hold creative people to the same rules as those who are less creative, or when they give them special treatment. For example, in 1983, after their graphing calculator project was cancelled, two Apple programmers snuck onto Apple property and secretly used the company’s equipment to continue working on it for months. After their access badges were eventually confiscated, coworkers helped them sneak in through side doors. And Steve Jobs even had a habit of parking his Mercedes in handicap parking spots and driving it without a license plate.
Basically, it’s not just that creative people can think outside the box; it’s that people who see themselves as creative and see creativity as rare believe that they deserve a bigger box than others.
You and Your Team
Participants then had five minutes to solve some math problems. Without being supervised, they checked their own answers and paid themselves based on the number of answers that they got right. They didn’t know that we could find out how many problems someone solved and how many problems they later said they solved.
Participants with creative identities in the entitled condition lied about how many problems they solved and stole six times more money than creative identities in the less entitled condition. And when we just looked at those in the entitled condition, individuals with creative identities were more dishonest than those with logical identities; they stole 1.75 times more. The results suggest that simply being creative is not the problem; rather, it is the entitlement from thinking that you are creative that leads to dishonesty.
In another study, we found further evidence that the relationship between creativity and unethical behavior relies on the belief that creativity is rare. We had 153 MBA students complete a word association task commonly used to measure creativity. Then we randomly sent each person one of three messages: 1) you did well on the creativity test, and creativity is rare; 2) you did well on the creativity test, but creativity is common; and 3) you did well on the task (there was no mention of creativity).
Next we told them that they would be anonymously paired with another participant to play a game. They had a choice to send either a truthful message to their partner, which would cause them to receive less money ($2), or a blatantly deceptive message, which would cause them to receive more money ($5). The participants who were told that creativity was rare were more than twice as likely to lie to their partners than participants in the other two groups.
Employees’ views of their coworkers contribute to their belief in the rareness of creativity and the sense of entitlement that can result from that belief. In another study, we surveyed 83 pairs of employees and their supervisors.
The connection between creativity and dishonesty is troubling. A typical organization loses approximately 5% of its revenue to fraud annually, resulting in a global loss of $2.9 trillion. While individuals with creative identities account for only a part of that, companies that encourage employees to see themselves as uniquely creative are unintentionally increasing that fraction.
Given the benefits of creativity, leaders have to encourage their employees’ imaginations. But perhaps the key to avoiding entitlement and unethical behavior is to make sure more employees see themselves as creative, so teams understand that it’s not a skill reserved for only a privileged few. Here are four suggestions for how to do that:
Carefully define what creativity is and is not. Our results demonstrate that the definition of creativity is not fixed and can be changed. While creativity involves a certain degree of risk-taking, managers should make clear that taking risks does not mean ignoring the rules and moral guidelines.
Emphasize that creativity is a skill that everyone can tap into. Thinking creatively can be a discipline and an ordinary everyday behavior. It is not reserved for a creative elite. While some people are inherently more creative than others, it’s a skill that can be learned and, therefore, is accessible to anyone. Leaders can celebrate creativity and laud its value, but it’s important to discourage your team from thinking that creativity is rare, and that some are just born with it. Focusing on a culture of creativity rather than individual creative identities can spark creativity without inadvertently signaling that dishonesty is acceptable.
Emphasize a team and organizational identity of creativity. Organizations such as Apple and IDEO have created brands around the idea that they are creative companies. The Apple brand, for instance, has become associated with creativity and thinking “different” at a subconscious level. If organizations create an organizational identity that “we are all creative,” creativity is seen as more common, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.
Don’t give people special treatment. Executives and team leaders need to clearly define the boundaries between ethical and unethical behaviors. This reduces people’s ability to redefine what is acceptable, and this gives employees the courage to hold people deemed “creative” to the same rules as everyone else. If the lines of morality are strong and clear, it is difficult to successfully create a bigger box through dishonesty.
Encouraging creativity can increase employees’ motivation and productivity and can help your organization find new ways to compete and succeed. But leaders need to be careful about how they do this, so their organizations reap the benefits and minimize the down side. By emphasizing that creativity can be found in small, everyday events that can come from anyone in the organization, you create a culture that inspires innovative thinking from all areas.