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Guest post: Innovation makes you dodgy. Discuss

Those of you who follow my work closely (*hello mum and dad*) will observe that I am a cautious proponent of innovation but – because the day job demands it and because it is interesting – I also spend some time talking and writing about the ethics of innovation.

Our beloved regulators have, if I can put this in my most professorial style, bigged up innovation fairly relentlessly and on flimsy evidence, and I think we need a more cautious, measured and forensic approach to building an ethically innovative legal services system and market. So I read the articleWhy Creative People Are More Likely to Be Dishonest’ in the Harvard Business Review and have summarised it quickly for interested parties:

Lynne Vincent and Maryam Kouchaki point out the considerable potential benefits of innovation and then come to their central point:

…being creative also has an undeniable dark side – one that can be very costly for companies if left unchecked. Research has shown that while creative people are adept at coming up with new ideas, they can also be more likely to engage in morally questionable behaviours.

They identify studies by Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely showing that creative thinkers are better at rationalising dishonesty and that ‘thinking outside the box’ may lead to a greater propensity to act unethically. Vincent and Kouchaki claim:

This is because, at least in the US, creativity is often celebrated as a special attribute. The idea that creativity is rare leads to a sense of entitlement; if you are creative, you see yourself as more deserving than others. Leaders reinforce this when they don’t hold creative people to the same rules as those who are less creative, or when they give them special treatment. Steve Jobs even had a habit of parking his Mercedes in handicap parking spots and driving it without a license plate.

Similarly, creative people may grant themselves a moral licence

Basically, it’s not just that creative people can think outside the box; it’s that people who see themselves as creative and see creativity as rare believe that they deserve a bigger box than others. And what is more troubling is that they might be willing to steal and lie as a result.

The conundrum from a policy (or business) perspective is rule-breaking can lead to better solutions, services or products but they can also (or alternatively) lead to ethical detriment because, ‘people who see themselves as creative will feel entitled and act dishonestly.’ Although the research does not cover it, we might suspect that this moral licensing might be mean that innovators are even more inclined to disregard rules that deal with behaviour less serious than dishonesty. A key to mitigating or encouraging this dishonesty was whether the creative person was encouraged to feel a stronger sense of entitlement. They also found that, ‘when people think they are in the company of other creative people, they don’t feel entitled to different standards and benefits.’

It is of course hard to put a price on the detriment associated with creativity. We could take the view that the costs are worth the benefits. Though, of course, we can’t really put a price on the benefits either. A compromise may be prudent:

Given the benefits of creativity, leaders have to encourage their employees’ imaginations. But perhaps the key to avoiding entitlement and unethical behaviour is to make sure more employees see themselves as creative, so teams understand that it’s not a skill reserved for only a privileged few.

And the authors make four suggestions as to how to do that:

Carefully define what creativity is and is not. Our results demonstrate that the definition of creativity is not fixed and can be changed. While creativity involves a certain degree of risk-taking, managers should make clear that taking risks does not mean ignoring the rules and moral guidelines.

Emphasise that creativity is a skill that everyone can tap into. Thinking creatively can be a discipline and an ordinary everyday behaviour. It is not reserved for a creative elite.

…Emphasise a team and organisational identity of creativity. …If organisations create an organisational identity that ‘we are all creative,’ creativity is seen as more common, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

Don’t give people special treatment. Executives and team leaders need to clearly define the boundaries between ethical and unethical behaviours. This reduces people’s ability to redefine what is acceptable, and this gives employees the courage to hold people deemed ‘creative’ to the same rules as everyone else. If the lines of morality are strong and clear, it is difficult to successfully create a bigger box through dishonesty.

Reifying innovation is dangerous. Suggest these problems to innovators and they tend to say, ‘We can’t be more unethical, we’re the good guys. We’re different. We’re taking on the Old World.’

Innovation evangelism needs a calmer, more self-reflective side.

Richard Moorhead is professor of law and professional ethics at UCL Faculty of Laws and director of the Centre for Ethics and Law. He blogs at Lawyer Watch. Follow Richard on Twitter.