My friend Mark Dykeman sent me a new Harvard study on Creativity. It’s a shocker at one level, and at another, it’s really not.
The not-finalized study (The Dark Side of Creativity, Original Thinkers Can Be Dishonest, by Francesca Gino and Daniel Ariely) claims, and quite credibly, that creative people can be dishonest — that is, less ethical, than those who are not as creative. In reading through the “working paper” (this means it has been released for comment and discussion, I’ll forward notes). I note how well researched the piece is, the authors have done a good job of building their case. They tested the concept no less than five different ways, and all five studies confirm the conclusion.
This is not a lightly done study. Surely, many will dispute it, but I have to say that while I could quibble with some of what they’ve done (see below under Quibbles header) I mostly agree. I’ve written before about the value of integrity when it comes to creative effectiveness (see this post “Creative Integrity”) and this study is no surprise to me. Still, it’s a conclusion I wish were not so, and, turning it around to something positive, I’ve outlined 5 Things Managers Can Do to Keep Creatives Honest, see below. I’ll leave it to “creatives” reading this to sort out how those 5 Things apply to them as individuals!
Creative people can be dishonest, indeed. They are human after all, and we all have this capacity. Now, it seems proven that creatives access this capacity, more than others, when it serves their interests. After all, creative people are motivated to (or intrinsically simply do) “think out-of-the-box”. Sometimes out of-the-box means out-of-the-ethical-box. Note the many examples in business and popular culture: Enron (who touted creativity in their annual reports), Bernie Madoff, the entire banking industry with their “creative” (but low value and risky) financial instruments. Hitler, was highly creative in military tactics wasn’t he? And let’s not even start on show biz (see My Story below) examples abound, from the corrupt TV quiz shows of the 50′s to shoplifting Winona Ryder. Creative thinking is a two way street; it can be used to break ethical rules, and then develop great creative rationalizations of unethical behavior. This in addition to those lovely, positive, ethical, and novel ideas for improvement.
5 Things Innovation Managers Can Do To Keep Creatives Honest:
1. Establish ethical behavior as a frankly stated policy. Say you expect it, say there will be consequences if it’s not done — and perform on this. Out-of-the-box ideas are desired, and, they need to be judged, critically, before implementation. One of the criteria regarding a new concept should always be, is it honest, truthful, ethical, fair, and of real value? If it’s not, use creativity to make it so, and money or rewards will come your way. And you can sleep at night.
2. Have an Honest Playing Field. Level the playing field for all employees, give them a fair deal. Nothing kills a culture of positive and ethical creativity like a sense of unfairness. If salaries are not in line with skill, experience, and contribution, people find out, and then resent the organization. Is the organization taking advantage without providing balancing benefits? Don’t make it easy for creative people to justify theft and sleaze; it becomes so much easier to rationalize if you feel you’re being shafted. 2.A Weed out the Bad Apples. If someone shows a talent for unethical and/or self-serving manipulation, deal with it, openly, frankly, and fairly. If those folks prosper, your actions will indicate the kind of behavior you reward. Promoting a creative manipulator is one of the worst things you can do.
3. Set an example of ethical behavior and integrity of ‘word’. If you expect everyone on the team to do what they say they’ll do, you must do the same. Ever notice how project plans slip when the boss isn’t accountable for his or her part of it? If your integrity slips as a manager, acknowledge it, apologize, and resolve to do better, openly. Only then can you hold others accountable. And do hold them accountable, if you have no integrity of word, you are building a house, a culture, on sand. Reward ethical behavior and steer misbehaviors back in line.
4. Be careful who you employ or work with. My father often said “all bets are made on the first tee” and it’s true, who you do business with, employ, or work for, begins with an initial understanding. Once that moment is past, it is much harder to adjust. We often have a sixth sense about people having to do simply with whether they are good or not, whether they are honest or shady. Have an open mind, but do listen to that inner voice, and, seek to understand where people are coming from. Stephen Covey, a hero of mine, coaches us to understand, and, get a solid understanding before making a deal. If it smells bad at first, it will only smell worse later. A bad hire, even of a very talented creative person, can do more harm than good in the long run.
5. Track Ideas and Intellectual Property. It’s amazing that many organizations let some of the best ideas they’ve paid for walk out the door with a fired or fast moving creative employee. IP is beyond valuable, it’s the company jewels. One of the prime values of Idea Management Systems is that they document ideas, time/date stamp them, and give credit for who thought of it, and who paid for it! Specific implementations of ideas are in fact “ownable” — don’t let them slip out of your hands. And again, be fair, if an employee helps you make a lot of money, they should be rewarded.
My Story Related to Ethics
Let me speak a bit from personal experience. After struggling for a few years to break into the TV industry, I finally wedged my way in, working with Warner Cable’s QUBE project back in the early 80′s. It was easily the most exciting job I ever had. For the first time I was working with classically creative people, in a creative industry, with state-of-the-art technology, in a creative department — TV Production. The pay was crap but I accepted this, at first. In the first few months working with the new team my joy turned to angst, suffering, and days of emotional high high’s and gut-wrenching low low’s. It was incredibly competitive, and, not a meritocracy, it was patently unethical and unfair. This was a culture that rewarded survival instincts more often than creative accomplishment. The knives were out and it was backstab city, and for a good long time. Some of my peers would actively sabotage me, and in very creative ways! I was forced to respond in kind — ineffectively, I have no talent and even less motivation for back stabbing. Finally, the dust settled, truces were made, new management pushed the reset button, and people got on with getting work done in a more collegial atmosphere. This team ended up winning many awards. When I heard the Tuckman model of teams years later — “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing” — boy do I get how bad the Storming part can be! Storming can be quite unethical, ‘creatives’ can be ruthless people. I left the TV industry for software technology, in part, because I wanted to move to a more positive work environment. Creative flow happens when people aren’t worried so much about getting stabbed in the back.
Quibbles with the Study:
As I said at the outset, I generally agree with the study. However, while they cite Michael Kirton’s work, it’s interesting that, like most people, the author’s of the study seem to define a creative as those who are at the “Innovative” end of the Adaptor-Innovator scale. Kirton would surely point out that Adaptive thinkers are also creative, but in a more conformist way. So, my first quibble is that the study singles out High Innovators to study as creatives. Most people, and many academic studies, would agree to the bias (as defining a creative person as a highly divergent thinker ‘without boundaries/outside the box’). Most people think that High Innovators are more creative than High Adaptors, so readers of the Dark Side study will understand the conclusion. However, the conclusion would leave out highly creative people who are Adaptors. It might have been better to study proven High Level Creatives (as in highly educated, with proven creative accomplishments, creative effectiveness as contrasted to capacity) across the Adaptor-Innovator scale. Or, maybe label the study differently, as it might be that it’s High Innovators who are more likely to cross the ethics line, not creatives in general. Actually, that’s a question — are high level creative Adaptors also prone to dishonesty? I suspect not as they are by definition rule driven.
Another quibble, related to the one above, is that Adaptors can fit the definition of creative because they might be fluid, flexible, and original within-the-box. The authors of the study use the phrase Outside The Box a good deal, as if that were the only kind of creativity. In the real world, creativity is often jammed with restraints that prohibit out of the box thinking. For example, the inventor of the Kimberley-Clark product Little Swimmies (pull up diapers) was restricted from coming up with a product that would require a refitting of the factory. The genius of the invention is therefore how cleverly she managed to fit the “printing” of the new style diapers within the existing paradigm. I suppose one might define this as out of the box but within constraints, but I wouldn’t.
In their procedure section they describe how study participants were given a personality questionnaire “which included measure of creative personality”, including the Gough creative personality (not familiar). This is interesting because those in the field find that this is remarkably hard to measure, and there is disagreement around this. Most creative assessments have a bias towards what is classically thought of as creative — as in artistic, self-expressed, etc, and Not in terms of complex problem solving capability. So, I’d like to know how they screened for creative types, they don’t say. If they screened along classic lines, I’d have to say the study is flawed. I could be wrong!