New Research Shows Relationships Among Creative Identity, Entitlement and Dishonesty Hinge on Perception of Creativity as Rare

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Think that you are special because you are creative? Well, you are not alone, and there may be some serious consequences especially if you believe that creativity is rare.

A new study by Lynne Vincent, an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, and Maryam Kouchaki, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, demonstrates that believing that you are a creative person can create feelings of entitlement when you think that creativity is rare and valuable. That feeling of entitlement can be costly for you and your organization as it can cause you to be dishonest.

Many organizations now are recognizing the importance of creativity and are attempting to encourage their employees to be creative. However, there is a cost to that creativity when creativity is seen as a rare and unique attribute. The findings in this study are based on several laboratory experiments, in addition to a study of employees and supervisor pairs.

While creativity is generally valued, such as other positive attributes, including practicality or intelligence, it may be over-valued compared to those other positive attributes because creativity is by definition rare. That sense of rarity then creates a sense of entitlement. People see their creative efforts as special and valuable and feel that they deserve extra rewards for their creative efforts. That entitlement can cause them to steal in order to get the rewards that they think they deserve.

However, it is naïve to assume that employees in companies that have developed a strong identity as creative, such as Apple, Google, and IDEO, would be necessarily more dishonest due to their creativity.

“The key to the relationship between creativity and dishonesty is the sense of rarity,” said Vincent. “When individuals identified themselves as creative and believed that creativity was rare, entitlement emerged. However, if individuals believed that creativity was common, that sense of entitlement and the dishonest acts were reduced.”

When people in the laboratory experiments believed that their creativity was rare compared to common, they were more likely to lie for money. However, when people believed that being practical was rare compared to common, the increased sense of psychological entitlement and dishonesty did not occur.

The effect was seen in organizations too. In organizations in which creativity was viewed as rare in workgroups, employees who identified themselves as creative were rated as engaging in more unethical behaviors by their supervisors. In brief, even though creativity is commonly considered as rare, the perceived prevalence of creativity and thus the accompanying entitlement depends on individuals’ context.

Despite the importance of creativity in the business world, the dark side of creativity has not been fully studied. However, as creativity is becoming more important for organizations, it is crucial for organizations to understand how to encourage creativity. Encouraging creativity in organizations is not as simple as telling employees to be creative. Defining what it means to be creative and what creativity means in that context is important. When people define creativity in terms of being rare and valuable, seeing yourself as a creative person can trigger entitlement and dishonesty. However, if organizations define creativity as a common and everyday behavior or an attribute that many people can have, organizations may be able to encourage employee creativity without encouraging employee dishonesty.

The study is forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal.