Nov. 4, 2014

PC workplace boosts creativity in male-female teams

Political correctness – loathed by some as censorship awash in leftist philosophy – actually boosts the creativity of mixed-sex work teams, according to new research.

If you think Americans are pushed to speak the language of close-minded social idealists at the expense of free speech, new research led by a Cornell ILR School professor might make you cringe. Findings published in Administrative Science Quarterly show political correctness doesn’t crush creativity and fuels idea sharing.

“Our work challenges the widespread assumption that true creativity requires a kind of anarchy in which people are permitted to speak their minds, whatever the consequence,” said Jack Goncalo, associate professor of organizational behavior in the ILR School.

For the increasingly diverse workplace, the research justifies political correctness beyond moral grounds as a practical foundation for creativity and potential profit-making, he said.

In two experiments with 582 participants, groups of three were randomly instructed to be “politically correct” or “polite.” Some groups didn’t receive any instructions.

All were then asked to spend 10 minutes brainstorming business ideas. Creativity was measured by counting the number of ideas generated and by coding them for novelty.

Contrary to the widely held notion that being politically correct has a generally stifling effect, the results showed that a PC norm actually boosted the creative output of mixed-sex groups.

These results highlight a paradoxical consequence of the politically correct norm: A term that has been used to undermine expectations and censor offensive language provides a normative foundation upon which demographically heterogeneous work groups can freely exchange creative ideas, Goncalo said.

“[Political correctness] facilitates idea expression by reducing the uncertainty that people tend to experience while interacting with the opposite sex,” he said. “The PC norm, by establishing a clear guideline for how to behave appropriately in mixed-sex groups, made both men and women more comfortable sharing their creative ideas.”

What the research findings mean for gender relations is troubling, Goncalo said: “The fact that men and women still experience a high level of uncertainty while working together and that a norm as restrictive as political correctness provided a safer environment for free expression means we still have a lot of work to do.”

The research is detailed in “Stifling or Liberating? How Political Correctness Influences Creativity in Mixed-Sex Work Groups” with Jennifer Chatman, University of California, Berkeley; Michelle Duguid, Washington University; and Jessica Kennedy, Vanderbilt University.

Mary Catt is assistant director of communications at the ILR School.