The dark side of creativity

As artificial intelligence and robotics change the way we work, creativity will become an increasingly valued attribute for employers.

Indeed a recent report by the World Economic Forum said that by the end of the decade creativity will be one of the top three in demand skills – the other two are critical thinking and complex problem solving.

Creativity generates unique ideas and solutions. But whilst it is generally seen as a desirable characteristic, there can also be a dark side associated with creative thinking because of its connection to unethical behaviour.

In 2013 for example, construction machinery giant Caterpillar had to write off some $580 million after it uncovered “deliberate, multi-year, coordinated accounting misconduct” at a subsidiary of a Chinese company it acquired.

Creative people are more likely to think “out of the box”, including in directions that stray into the bounds of unethical.

That came around the time an even larger fraud was exposed in the global banking industry, with bankers at several of the world’s top banking names conspiring to fix the key LIBOR interbank lending rate.

Frauds can be on a large scale like these examples or far small – but are they all associated with creative personnel who felt warranted to engage in such practices given the potentially lucrative financial returns.

In a study with co-authors from University of Arizona and Arizona State University, we looked at the relationship between creative personality and unethical behaviour.

Fleixible thinking

Creative people tend to notice things that others miss and interpret problems from a unique perspective. These characteristics stem from a flexible way of thinking where creative individuals can connect information, even those seemingly irrelevant to others, in multiple ways depending on the circumstances.

As a result, creative people are more likely to think “out of the box”, including in directions that stray into the bounds of unethical.

We conducted three studies involving more than 430 individuals and found that in situations that can activate creativity, creative people may be more likely to engage in unethical behaviour as they can find justifications to rationalise their morally questionable actions.

We measured how creative each individual is. Additionally, half of them were encouraged to be creative in various tasks such as building Lego models or designing a backpack. The other half completed similar exercises without any such encouragement.

We also embedded the possibility of engaging in unethical behaviour. Individuals could cheat by not following the rules of how to complete their tasks. For instance, they could cheat by telling a lie so that they could get a larger remuneration.

Across all three studies, we found that more creative individuals tended to engage in unethical behaviours than their less creative counterparts. But interestingly, encouraging them to be creative played a key role.

Specifically, when individuals were encouraged to be creative, those who were not creative were the least unethical while those with a creative personality were the most unethical.

When the tasks did not require creativity, creative and less creative individuals were no different in their unethical behaviour.

Importantly, it was the justification for their unethical behaviour that drove creative people to be unethical when doing tasks that called for creativity. This means that when creative people can justify their unethical actions when performing creative work, they are more likely to engage in such questionable practices. When they cannot justify such behaviour, they are less likely to engage in unethical conduct.

Perhaps in the above examples, the massive financial interests at stake had been the motivation and justification for the individuals to resort to wrongdoing.

Potential pitfalls

At a broader level, our research demonstrates that creative employees and employees who are encouraged to be creative may lose their moral compass especially when there is some justification.

Companies seeking to build a creative environment and encourage more creativity from their employees should be wary of potential ethical pitfalls where individuals think they can get away with morally ambiguous behaviour.

While it is important to build a corporate culture that promotes ingenuity, companies must also value governance and transparency. Processes should be put in place that ensure business actions do not go overboard and pose a risk to the company.

The message should be clear that while creativity is encouraged, employees need to be made aware of the consequences of unethical behaviour.

During the recruitment process, management should be more stringent in their checks to see if potential hires had displayed questionable behaviour in the past.

Creativity may be an important skill, but there must also be an awareness of the grey side of creativity and its negative impact on the company.

  • Author Profile

    mm

    Michael Mai is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management & Organisation at NUS Business School. His research interests include Deviance Behavior, Business Ethics and Organisational Behavior.

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