Are Creative Types More Dishonest?

There's a definitive link between creativity and dishonesty, according to recent research. But companies are not about to stop seeking out innovative and creative talent, so what lessons are valuable for HR's role in keeping everyone honest in the workplace?

Monday, April 2, 2012
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Can creativity have a "dark side" in the workplace?

"It is possible that creative thinking may ... have a hidden cost in the form of increased dishonesty when used to resolve ethical dilemmas," write the authors of the paper "The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest," which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School -- who co-authored the report with Dan Ariely, a professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University -- says the researchers were surprised by the overall results of the research.

But because innovation and creative thinking fuel today's economy, Gino says, the report is not an overt criticism of creativity.

"We don't want to say, 'Stop hiring people who are creative' or 'Stop being innovative,' " she says.

"It's obvious that creativity is an important quality for the success of an organization," she says. "But for jobs that require high levels of creativity, we are saying [to hiring managers and HR leaders], 'Be careful.' Our paper raises a red flag."

There were five studies overall, including one involving 99 employees at an advertising agency in the southern United States. In that particular study, employees -- pulled from 17 different departments of the agency -- participated in a short, online survey that asked how likely they would be to engage in eight ethically questionable behaviors, such as taking office supplies from work or inflating a business-expense report.

The employees then, after reading two scenarios describing an individual who has the opportunity to behave dishonestly, were asked how likely they would be to behave unethically if they were in the person's shoes.

Finally, the respondents identified their department within the company and indicated the amount of creativity they thought was required in their job. Three executives also participated in this section of the study.

After computing the results, "the creativity required on the job (as judged by both employees and managers) was positively correlated with employees' self-reported dishonesty," according to the study. "These results provide some preliminary evidence for the hypothesized association between creativity and dishonesty."


"We were [surprised]," Gino says, "in the sense that we didn't expect to find a robust link [between creativity and dishonesty], both in terms of creativity as a personality trait, but also as something that can be triggered by the environment."

Creativity, she says, can increase a person's moral flexibility, which then "allows for many more reasons justifying why [a particular] activity they are going to engage in is morally appropriate."

The duo's research and the data, she says, point to the idea that -- both for a creative personality and also for a person put into a creative situation -- moral flexibility seems to be heightened.

"So it's the very nature of being creative, or else being put in a creative situation, that seems to raise the possibility of dishonesty," she says.

HR, she says, should remind people that ethics is important and that finding solutions within ethical boundaries is ultimately best for the organization.

"Whenever there is a push for creativity," she says, "there should be an equal push for ethics."


David Gebler, president of Skout Group, a Sharon, Mass.-based ethics and values-management consultancy, agrees that companies should not downgrade the importance of ethical behavior in order to meet bottom-line demands.

"While creativity and out-of-the-box thinking is encouraged," he says, "companies fail to adequately consider the parameters they have set up -- or failed to set up -- in guiding [ethical] behavior."

The social norms derived from a company's culture may play a "tremendous" role in keeping employees' inclinations toward dishonesty at bay, he says, because, "some of us toe the line naturally, while others -- who are proud of their independent thinking -- need more careful nudging to work effectively within 'the lines.' "

Organizations, Gebler says, must distinguish the "what" from the "why" when it comes to ethical decision-making for creative individuals in creative positions within the organization.

"In every business there are limits and parameters," he says. "Successful managers of creatives can get them excited about using their creativity to find the best solution within those constraints.

"Make it a challenge and not a barrier," he says.

When companies give black-and-white boundaries without any explanation -- the "what" in Gebler's scenario -- it can create frustration, he says.

"However, when the company tells employees why the rules are in place and provides guidelines within which they can make their own decisions," he says, "they are generally more engaged."

He cites as an example a group of pharmaceutical sales representatives at an organization he worked with, where they had become risk averse because of heavy fines due to inappropriate marketing communications with doctors.

"The companies that focus only on the 'what' have removed all creativity from the sales force," he says. "They are told they may only do 'X' and they can't do 'Y.' "

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To keep employees engaged -- and creative -- while staying within ethical boundaries, companies should start telling them the "why," he says.

Managers should tell employees: "We are bound by these regulations for these reasons," or "Think about how you can do your job so as to be an effective sales person within the parameters of our legal limits," he says.

"This approach taps into their creativity and can generate higher levels of commitment because the employees have some freedom to think and act autonomously," he says. "Employees don't expect or even need 100-percent autonomy to feel creative or engaged. We just need to feel that we can have some independent running room to use the creativity that we were hired for."

But Nancy Reece, a senior consultant with The Human Capital Group in Nashville, Tenn., says she has serious doubts about the suggested link between creativity and rationalizing unethical behavior, partly because she didn't see any demographic information on the study participants.

"Previous studies have shown significant differences in honesty dependent upon age," she says. "It would be very interesting to see if dishonesty had an age correlation in this study."

She also says that previous personality research shows a correlation between creativity and independence.

"People who are independent tend to break rules," she says. "So how much of [the study's results are based on] creativity and how much is [based on] the underlying personality factor of independence?"

Despite these concerns, Reece says she thinks additional studies around the correlation between honesty and creativity could be "very interesting."

Gino says the researchers did not take age into account as part of their analysis, but may opt to do so in future studies.

In any event, she says, the research shows that organizations need to rethink how they incentivize as well as evaluate their workers to create an atmosphere where doing the right thing is the norm.

"That's really a task that HR commonly deals with," she says, "and it involves quite a shift in the understanding of how people should be evaluated.

"In everything we do, the common tendency of human nature is to judge people's actions based on the outcome," she says. "Even when we look at equally ethically shady actions, if the outcome is good, we are OK to not punish. But if the outcome is bad, then we tend to punish."

Companies need to move away from the end-justifies-the-means approach, citing the example of a friend who recently struggled with the decision of whether to punish her young child, who had gotten caught doing something unethical -- but in an appreciably creative way.

In the end, Gino says, the mother decided the negative force of the unethical behavior outweighed the creative manner in which it was performed, and the child was punished.

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