Innovation and creative thinking, which are critical to corporate sustainability, can be stymied in mixed-sex teams. It seems that 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.
Now, according to new research at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, it appears that taking care to be politically correct can help men and women become more creative. So to encourage creativity when men and women are working together it is important to set high standards of politically correct behaviour.
This is rather counter-intuitive as political correctness, the butt of a thousand jokes, is largely seen to be restrictive; whereas creativity is thought to be unleashed by removing conventional constraints. However the research, from Professor Jennifer Chatman of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business: Management of Organizations Group and her co-authors, demonstrates that insisting on politically correct behavioural can play an important role in promoting gender parity at work by allowing diverse work groups to more freely exchange creative ideas.
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.
“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.
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.
The implication must be that managers should position PC behaviour as part of their organizational culture. That way when creative thinking and idea sharing are called for it is already in place to provide a layer of safety which can help promote a creativity and innovation. Surprisingly creativity in mixed-sex groups emerges, not by removing behavioural constraints, but by imposing them.