Faculty & Research
Faculty & Research
Employee creativity can be a double-edged sword: How creativity affects employees’ ethical behaviour
By Xin Liu, Byron Lee, Tae‑Yeol Kim, Yaping Gong and Xiaoming Zheng
Creativity is essential in all forms of business. No organisation can hope to survive without actively seeking out individuals whose ability to think unconventionally helps them to solve problems and generate novels ideas. Despite the inherent value of a creative personality, a recent paper we have published demonstrates that this desirable trait may also contain a dark side – a greater tendency to act unethically in certain situations.
For years, studies have focused on the connection between an employee’s creativity and their capacity to ‘morally disengage’ (a psychological process where individuals use displacement of responsibility, distortion of consequences, or other forms of moral justification to engage in unethical behaviour without the ‘self-sanctioning’ feelings of guilt and shame stopping them first). Their evidence is mixed; some studies suggest that a creative personality better equips individuals to perform the kind of mental or logical acrobatics necessary for moral disengagement. Others, however, suggest that a creative person is more likely to handle complex situations successfully, making them less reliant on unethical methods to achieve their goals.
Our study aimed to address the ambiguity in this connection between creativity and the kind of moral disengagement that is often needed to commit unethical behaviour. We found that creativity can both encourage and discourage moral disengagement depending on the type of motivation elicited from the creative individual. From a series of surveys of more than 750 respondents, we found that that workplace motivation is key:
- Creative employees show higher competitive motivation (the desire to outperform others to advance one’s career), which results in a higher likelihood to morally disengage, resulting in unethical behaviours, whereas;
- Creative employees also show higher prosocial motivation (the desire to benefit others) which results in a lower likelihood to morally disengage, thereby reducing unethical behaviours.
Together, these findings explain why a creative personality can be such a double-edged sword when it comes to the ethical behaviour of employees. We also found that the competitive climate of an employee’s workplace is a crucial moderating factor. If there is an overly competitive climate (i.e., employees believe that they must outperform their co-workers if they want to secure organisational benefits or rewards), this will further encourage moral disengagement in creative employees, even those with high prosocial motivations.
Understanding how and when creative employees become morally disengaged (and, in turn, how this leads to unethical behaviours in the workplace) is important in both theory and practice. While every employer wants creativity in their workforce, it is important for managers and team leaders to understand how this can spur employees to act unethically in their own self-interest. There are several practical steps employers can take to avoid this:
Nurture creative employees’ prosocial tendencies and outlook. Managers can actively communicate the positive impact of employees’ creative work on others, drawing attention to its benefits for the whole organisation.
Manage creative employees’ competitive motivation. If employees are overly competitive or even disappointed when others perform well, managers need to identify this behaviour, inform them of the importance of acting ethically, and find ways to channel their competitive spirit appropriately.
Be wary of creating an overly competitive climate. While organisations are always keen to use competition to encourage higher performance, they must be aware of its potentially negative side effects. An overly competitive climate brings out the worst tendencies in highly competitive employees, and stifles the desire to act ethically in those who are prosocially motivated. Accordingly, organisations must ensure that they monitor their workplace climate, avoid overindulging in stoking inter-personal competition, and overtly communicate the vital importance of acting ethically.
This article refers to a study entitled “Double‑Edged Effects of Creative Personality on Moral Disengagement and Unethical Behaviours: Dual Motivational Mechanisms and a Situational Contingency” published in the Journal of Business Ethics.
Xin Liu is an Associate Professor at Renmin Business School. Byron Lee and Tae-Yeol Kim are Professors in the Department of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). Yaping Gong is a Professor of Management at the School of Business and Management, The Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. Xiaoming Zheng is a Full Professor at the School of Economics and Management, Tsinghua University.