Ideas for Leaders #505

How Political Correctness Increases Creativity in Mixed-Sex Teams

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Key Concept

Creativity can suffer in mixed-sex teams. Men and women both experience uncertainty when asked to generate ideas as members of a mixed-sex work group: men because they may fear offending the women and women because they fear having their ideas devalued or rejected. Being PC helps men and women become more creative. 

Idea Summary

Conventional wisdom has it that diversity helps creativity, in that people in homogenous groups are similar to one another with similar ideas and therefore less divergent thinking occurs. Also most research into group creativity assumes that creativity is unleashed by removing conventional constraints.

This research, from Professor Jennifer Chatman of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business: Management of Organizations Group and her co-authors, demonstrates that politically correct behavioural norms, may play an important role in promoting gender parity at work by allowing diverse work groups to more freely exchange creative ideas.

This is counterintuitive, both because political correctness (PC) is associated with conformity rather than the free-thinking needed for creativity, and because the well-meaning concept of PC has in recent years become degraded and the butt of a thousand jokes. However, according to the researchers PC norms promote rather than suppress the free expression of ideas by reducing the uncertainty experienced by both sexes in mixed-sex teams and signalling that the group is predictable enough to risk sharing your ideas with.

“Our contention is controversial because many have argued that imposing the PC norm might not just eliminate offensive behaviour and language but will also cause people to filter out and withhold potentially valuable ideas and perspectives,” says Chatman, “We suggest that this critical view of the PC norm reflects a deeply rooted theoretical assumption that normative constraints inevitably stifle creative expression—an assumption we challenge.”

The authors designed their experiments taking into account the different incentives men and women have for adhering to politically correct behaviour. Men said they were motivated to adhere to a PC norm because of concerns about not being overbearing and offending women. Whereas one might expect women to perceive a PC norm as emblematic of weakness or conformity, women in the experiment became more confident about expressing their ideas out loud when the PC norm was salient or prominent. In contrast, in work groups that were homogeneous – all men or all women – a salient PC norm had no impact on the group’s creativity compared to the control group.

Study participants were randomly divided into mixed sex groups and same sex groups. Next, researchers asked the groups to describe the value of PC behaviour before being instructed to work together on a creative task. The control groups were not exposed to the PC norm before beginning their creative task. The task involved brainstorming ideas on a new business entity to be housed in a property left vacated by a mismanaged restaurant – by design, a project that has no right or wrong strategy.

Instead of stifling their ideas, mixed-sex groups exposed to the PC norm performed more creatively by generating a significantly higher number of divergent and novel ideas than the control group. As expected, same sex groups generated fewer creative outcomes. 

Business Application

Actively imposing a PC standard sets clear expectations of how women and men should interact with each other in a work environment. Counterintuitively this in turn encourages greater sharing of creative ideas in mixed-sex teams and work groups by reducing uncertainty in relationships.

Creativity in mixed-sex groups emerges, not by removing behavioural constraints, but by imposing them. Setting a norm that both clarifies expectations for appropriate behaviour and makes salient the social sanctions that result from using sexist language unleashes creative expression by countering the uncertainty that arises in mixed-sex work groups.

Managers should position PC behaviour part of their organizational culture. That way when creative thinking and idea sharing are needed it is already in place to provide a layer of safety which can help promote creativity and innovation.

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