Innovation/Global Risk 

Are Creative People Dishonest?

By Shlomo Maital  


 Dan Ariely 

The latest (Dec. 7) issue of Harvard Business School’s publication Working Knowledge has a piece by editor Carmen Nobel that I found disturbing.  According to Nobel:

  In a series of studies, Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely found that inherently creative people tend to cheat more than noncreative people.    

 ● Inherently creative people tend to cheat more than noncreative types.

● Furthermore, inducing creative behavior tends to induce unethical behavior.  

   Gino and Ariely surveyed 99 employees across 17 departments at an American advertising agency, where some jobs—copywriting, for example—required much more creativity than others. In the anonymous survey, on a seven-point scale, the respondents indicated how likely they were to engage in various ethically questionable work behaviors such as “take home office supplies from work” and “inflate your business expense report.” Respondents also evaluated scenarios describing a hypothetical person who has the opportunity to behave dishonestly, and then indicated, again on a seven-point scale, how likely they would be to behave unethically in each instance. Finally, the respondents reported how much creativity was required in their respective jobs, with three managers in the executive office rating the creativity level required in each department, as well.  Overall, the researchers learned, the higher the creativity required for the job, the higher the level of self-reported dishonesty.

    Gino and Ariely note:  “As a manager, if you’re highlighting the importance of being creative and innovative, it’s important to make sure that you’re stressing the presence of ethics, too,” Gino says. “Dan and I 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 behavior without triggering the bad behavior.”

   I teach my management students that innovation is breaking the rules.  I don’t mean, of course, breaking the law.  But, are those able and willing to break the ‘rules’ or ‘conventions’ also more able and willing to break the law?  This seems to be the simplest explanation of the phenomenon discovered by Gino and Ariely.

  Perhaps we need to redouble our efforts to to find effective ways to teach ethics in management courses, along with innovation.  I myself intend to do this. 

  Maybe there is some comfort in the fact that creative people are very honest about self-reported dishonesty.  Maybe creative people, who break rules all the time, are simply more honest about being dishonest than less creative people.