Theory of Creativity: Political Correctness at Work

Research suggests norms for political correctness can positively effect workplace creativity by sharpening an individual’s contribution to a group.
Kevin Hurren September 8, 2017

The Unexpected Benefits of Political Correcteness in Creative Workplaces

Some people consider political correctness a necessary social norm. It keeps workplaces civil and employers safe from lawsuits. Others consider political correctness a blight on productivity. It stifles creativity and free speech.

When it comes to political correctness, who's correct?

Political Correctness Sharpens a Person's Contribution

Recent research suggests that embracing political correctness can actually have a positive effect on workplace creativity. In “Creativity from Constraint? How the Political Correctness Norm Influences Creativity in Mixed-Sex Work Groups,” authors Jack Goncalo (Cornell University), Jennifer Chatman (University of California, Berkeley), Michelle Duguid (Washington University), and Jessica Kennedy (Vanderbilt University) challenge the assumption that unfiltered perspectives are more valuable in a work setting. By studying behaviours in 150 brainstorming groups, Goncalo and his colleagues found political correctness ("PC") can actually sharpen, rather than dull, an individual’s contribution to a group.

Creativity – A Valuable Workplace Asset

Creativity is essential to firm innovation and growth. Recognizing this, the researchers identified creative potential as an asset.

Political correctness has particular influence over creativity – in both the number and novelty of ideas people express. Eliciting creative ideas, especially within groups, can be difficult because new ideas inherently challenge the status quo. New ideas also present interpersonal risk.

To foster creativity, it’s important for group members to take risks. With organizations becoming increasingly diverse, firms need to help individuals overcome real or perceived creative barriers for ideas to flow.

Uncertainties about Sexism Block Creativity

The study refers to creative barriers as “uncertainties.” An uncertainty is a person’s subjective prediction about their peers' past or future behaviour.

Although people know to avoid overt sexism, figuring out which behaviours or statements are sexist is difficult. Uncertainty over how and when to avoid sexism causes men and women to over-correct in ways that inhibit the expression of creative ideas.

The study finds that in a mixed-sex work environment, men often worry about being too overbearing. They are uncertain if something they say will offend a woman present. Contrarily, women are uncertain of their legitimacy, worrying about being viewed as meek or incompetent. This uncertainty leads both men and women to go along with others's ideas  have suggested instead of introducing new or controversial thoughts.

People Signal Uncertainty with "Hedges" and "Validation"

To gauge uncertainty in their test groups, the authors used two main measurements: hedges and validation.

Hedges are words or phrases that act as shields against accusations of error. Hedges includes words such as “around,” “maybe,” and “think.” Groups not given a PC prompt commonly used statements such as: “I’m no expert, but...” and “Maybe I’m wrong, but....”

Another way people try to reduce feelings of uncertainty is by seeking validation from the rest of the group. Common examples of validation-seeking phrases included: “That’s a good idea, isn’t it?” and “What do you think?”

Political Correctness Clears Up Uncertainty, Conveys Consequences

The best way to combat uncertainty is with clarity.  Political correctness plays a key role in improving clarity. PC norms set expectations for appropriate behaviour and highlight social sanctions.

Emphasizing politeness or sensitivity is less effective than emphasizing political correctness. While politeness and sensitivity induce general warmth, they do not set specific limits. Consequences aren't serious enough when group members fail to demonstrate politeness or sensitivity. Failing to be politically correct has clear consequences such as isolation or even loss of employment.

Political Correctness Boosts Men's and Women's Creative Performance

The benefits of reinforcing a strong PC stance in the workforce have different effects on men and women.

For men, imposing clear constraints on language and behaviour actually removes the need for them to re-evaluate the appropriateness of each action.  For women, an externally imposed norm helps them anticipate that men will avoid sexist responses – making them less likely to feel uncertain about the value of their ideas.

Contradicting prevalent opinions, the study finds that even overtly instructing groups to be politically correct can successfully liberate idea exchange rather than trigger constraint. PC norms can boost performance for less-structured groups. Examples of structured bodies include boards, which have formal rules and procedures governing interaction.

Political correctness can help many workplaces capitalize on the full range of talent within its labour pool.

Goncalo, J.A., Chatman, J.A., Duguid, M.M., and Kennedy, J.A. 2013. "Creativity from Constraint? How the Political Correctness Norm Influences Creativity in Mixed-sex Work Groups." Administrative Science Quarterly. 60.1: 1-30.