The Truth About Deception

If you take the time to comb through job listings, you will find that most employers seek creative candidates. Business proprietors view creativity as a rare skill, one that defines a person’s character and helps to distinguish them from their competitors.

In a global study conducted by IBM, over 1,500 leaders across 60 nations considered creativity to be the most important quality for prosperous business, resting well ahead of attributes such as “integrity” and “global thinking.” Even the importance of seemingly fundamental standards like “dedication” and “fairness” appeared to carry far less merit than imagination.

Although society awards innovation and resourcefulness, researchers have determined that creative types possess a greater tendency to be dishonest and engage in morally questionable behaviors. While employers look to hire inventive applicants, they often fail to consider the negative implications of being defined as such.

BTR reached out to Lynne Vincent–an assistant professor of management at Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University–to discuss the social and ethical associations of creativity.

With help from Maryam Kouchaki, Vincent set out to research the relationship between this most prominent leadership trait and wrongful behavior in the workplace. Through controlled experiments, Vincent and her partner sought to answer why people who label themselves as creative act in an immoral manner.

“We were interested in how the creative identity, the belief that you are a creative person, affects dishonest behavior,” Vincent tells BTR. “In several studies, we induced people to believe that they were creative people.”

For instance, in one study, Vincent ascribed a label to 131 participants and designated them as either creative or logical. She then asked them to solve math equations. Without being monitored, the participants checked their own answers and compensated themselves based on the number of questions they answered correctly.

The findings of the study showed that the “creative” subjects lied about the amount of math problems they answered correctly; they stole six times more money than those categorized as logical. Vincent concluded that believing in this clever identity causes individuals to express a heightened sense of entitlement.

“Our findings show that it is not just creative ability that can lead to dishonest behavior,” Vincent explains. “Just thinking that you are a creative person and that creativity is rare and valuable can trigger a sense of entitlement that leads to dishonesty.”

Since employers stress ingenuity in employment listings, when interviewees are brought in for hire they have a sense that they are endowed with unmatched qualities, uncommon among others. The belief that they are exceptional promotes a distorted and dishonest culture from the start.

“In our society, creativity is seen as a rare and valuable attribute. Creative people are often praised and allowed to break rules that less creative people aren’t able to do,” says Vincent. “This special treatment creates a sense of entitlement. When people believe they deserve more, they are more willing to steal and lie to get what they feel they legitimately deserve.”

Based on the results of her research, Vincent provides suggestions to reduce the likelihood of these self-proclaimed visionaries from engaging in fraudulent behavior.

Firstly, Vincent stresses that employers define creativity in the workplace. With this definition comes the space to think freely and deflect from rigid guidelines, but employers must set a precedent to ensure that innovators don’t take liberties that entirely ignore standard rules and regulations. Denoting which projects call for more imaginative reflection allows employees to think outside of a designated domain and utilize their potential, but it also allows company heads to keep a check on honest workplace practices.

In addition, Vincent emphasizes the fact that everybody has the potential to be creative; it is not a skill saved for an elite few, but rather one that is acquirable by many.

“It is important to note that creativity is not a rare or mystical attribute. It is a skill that can be learned,” Vincent tells BTR. “Anyone can be creative. When people stop thinking about creativity as rare, their likelihood of engaging in dishonest behavior is reduced.”

Employers can benefit from looking to companies like Apple and Google that brand themselves as a “creative.” Rather than single out individual employees for their demiurgic prowess, the entire team is seen as creative because it is inherent in the organization’s structure and identity.

“Focusing on a culture of creativity in a work environment rather than individual creative identities can spark creativity without inadvertently signaling that dishonesty is acceptable,” says Vincent.

Creativity is not seen as less valuable this way; rather, it promotes an environment where employees and employers can thrive in an honest and loyal community because everyone is held to the same esteem.

Feature photo courtesy of Impassion Afghanistan.


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