Monday, January 31, 2011

The Dark Side of Creativity - A Rebuttal

My former colleague and co-author Lynne Levesque has written a thoughtful guest post about the Gino and Ariely research on the "dark side of creativity" (about which I blogged a few days ago). Lynne and I wrote an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review on "making change stick" several years ago. She has a great deal of expertise in the area of creativity, and she raises some good points about this new research on the possible relationship between creativity and dishonest behavior. Here is her guest post:

Since creativity is a competence in high demand these days, especially among leaders, it needs to be appropriately understood. Such understanding is also critical since I believe that we all have the potential to be creative – at least at some level -- and that recognizing and appropriately valuing this vital quality is essential for personal and organizational excellence, dare I say even survival. Accordingly, I have several comments about this paper on the “Dark Side of Creativity:”

First: It should be recognized that the authors limit themselves to only part of what creativity is really all about. The most current definition of creativity is that it is “the ability to produce novel and useful work– not just ideas. As such creativity involves much more than the two processes studied by the authors -- divergent thinking and cognitive flexibility. True creativity also involves convergent and deliberate thinking, planning, strategizing, and implementing.

Secondly, the authors do not indicate that creativity causes dishonest behavior, only that “high levels of divergent thinking and cognitive flexibility are likely to be associated with dishonest behavior” and even then only under certain circumstances. I might add that, without limits, divergent thinking is also associated with and may even cause chaos and craziness!

Thirdly, the tests that the authors use to judge creativity are self-rated measures of “divergent thinking.” Is it possible that those participants in the research who exhibited dishonest behavior in the exercises also manipulated their answers on the “creativity” tests?

Finally, I agree with the authors that creativity can be used to justify unethical behaviors and to push boundaries. These dangers put even more emphasis on leaders to understand creativity and their crucial role in defining constraints, in terms of clearly articulated goals and organizational values. Enron didn’t fail because of the creativity of its employees and leaders. It failed because leaders got carried away with their own success and greed and neglected to set and enforce ethical boundaries and necessary controls.

Thus topics for further research, as the authors suggest, should include the role of leaders and organizations in ensuring that promotion of creativity and innovation is closely coupled with education and enforcement of standards of ethical behavior. Hopefully this further research agenda will also include accounting for all the good that creative thinking has contributed to the world. How do those who are recognized for their creative contributions manage to walk on the Bright Side of Creativity?

Lynne C. Levesque, Ed.D, author of Breakthrough Creativity: Achieving Top Performance Using the Eight Creative Talents (Davies-Black, 2001)

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