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Creating dishonesty

01 February 2012

Do you count yourself as innovative and creative? 

Would you be a great asset to any business because you think outside the square and bring new ways of problem solving?

Well, don’t admit it too soon, because there’s a school of thought that says these sorts of traits in business are a major liability.

According to the authors of a new research study, “The Dark Side of Creativity”, reported on in Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, creative people cheat and must be watched very closely.

What’s even more thought provoking than this, according to the American behavioural psychologists, Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely, conducting the study, is the fact that “inducing creative behaviour tends to induce unethical behaviour”.

The big problem for business (if Gino and Ariely are correct) is that by asking staff to be creative and innovative, to think outside the box and bring something new to the organisation or the business problem, you will also produce bad (unethical) behaviour. 

Children and writers are living proof that the process of “making-up” stories is just a very short grey step away from fibbing, white lies, and, let’s face it, dishonesty. (When did you last fudge a little something in a dinner party story to make it more interesting; on your resume, or expense report?) 

How many times have you, in the company of others or in an unfamiliar context, acted completely out of character – done a runner with friends in a crowded café; taken just a bit too much stationary from the office cabinet, or, when feeling your most creative, found you’ve suffered an ethics bypass?

Mostly, we have our boundaries – a moral and ethical sense that kicks in to modify and regulate our actions and thoughts. But creativity mismanaged can have poor consequences.

What happens, for instance, when you find yourself working in a company with a “fuzzy outlook” on governance and transparency, or poorly constructed and implemented corporate social responsibility policies and procedures and you’re asked to think and solve problems outside the box? (The phone hacking scandal in the media is an example of mismanaged behaviours running amok. Journalists, called on to do all they can to get a story, push aside the obvious illegalities of certain ‘creative’ methods of attaining information because they had to get the story or lose their job and under the belief that because ‘everyone’ was doing it that made it okay.) 

According to Gino and Ariely’s study, it’s very important that you know what constitutes ethical and unethical behaviour so the process of being lateral and creative can have positive outcomes. Companies must also have procedures and policies and structures in place to guide people in the process of being creative.

Gino and Ariely are not suggesting stopping innovation or innovative thought, but they are saying that it is absolutely vital that we remain aware of our ethics: “Dan and I [Francesca Gino] are of the 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 behaviour without triggering the bad behaviour.”



  • Laura Koh

    Laura Koh 8 years ago

    I actually think this study is slightly offensive to those of us who are creative and run businesses of our own. I think those more likely to cheat are those who aren't creative - they need to cheat, steal ideas, whatever to keep themselves on top, instead of innovating and acting proactively. As a photographer, I see a lot of this type of activity, from wanna-be types that can't come up with their own original ideas.Personally I'd hire a creative untrained person to work for me, rather than a trained by-the-numbers type anyday.

  • Jeannene ODay

    Jeannene ODay 8 years ago

    I take issue with this study - only because it is more often than not the uncreative companies that are incapable of adapting to changing environments (which is more characteristic of the world we live in today). All too often it is these companies that have to resort to unethical practices when they realise they have lost market share to a more innovative competitor. Or what about the company that doesn't innovate and needs to steal ideas off a more creative competitor? Frankly I am fairly certain that if we look for them we can find numerous examples of how firms that lack creative people find themselves looking for unethical ways to stay ahead of the game. Finally, I would hardly call media that hacks into phones creative - I would describe these institutions and the people who lead them as \"desperate\" rather than creative. If they can't find an interesting story or article to write ethically they must find it by some other means.