How Can You be Both Moral and Creative? Ethical Leaders Can Help!

Key Takeaways:

  • Employees who have a high level of morality might display low creativity; however, this is not their fault. It’s because moral employees sacrifice their own time and energy to fulfill moral responsibilities, thereby leaving them less able to be creative.
  • Organizations should cultivate ethical leadership, encourage all leaders to take moral responsibilities, along with setting clear ethical boundaries and managing unethical behaviors; this will unleash moral employees’ creative potentials and ensure the healthy and sustainable development of organizations.

When talking about creativity, we usually think it is desirable and beneficial because it can generate novel and useful ideas to solve problems and improve effectiveness, especially in today’s changing environment.

However, is creativity always positive?

Emerging academic studies have revealed the dark side of creativity in terms of facilitating deviant behaviors. And on the reverse, previous research on “Evil Genius” has also found that dishonesty can lead to greater creativity.

This is not what organizations want. Recurring business scandals over these years have warned organizations of the critical role of ethics and morality in facilitating sustainable development. Thus, organizations need to have employees who care about ethics.

Organizations, therefore, face a dilemma. On the one hand, organizations need employees to be moral and ethical; on the other hand, since moral employees care more about following rules, organizations are wary that these rule-followers emphasize too much on “staying in line” and cannot “think outside the box.” Therefore, is there a way to address the tradeoff between morality and creativity and maintain both morality and creativity?

Our research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, helps answer this important question. Through two field studies and two experimental studies in China and the United States, we found that employees with a higher degree of moral ownership showed lower creativity. However, it was not because these moral employees did not have the potential to be creative; it was because they spent a lot of time and energy managing their own and others’ (un)ethical behaviors, which left less for them to show creativity.

How can we help moral employees show creativity? We found that ethical leadership can help address this conundrum. Ethical leaders take moral responsibilities to stress the importance of ethics, lay out clear ethical rules, clarify ethical boundaries, reward ethical behaviors and punish unethical behaviors at work.

These leader behaviors can relieve moral employees from the burden of navigating rules following and managing others’ unethical behaviors. As a result, moral employees can have more space for creativity without compromising ethicality.

We suggest managers should recognize that moral employees are not destined to be uncreative. Organizations can allow these employees (who are very important to the organization given their high ethical standards) to also be creative by cultivating more ethical leaders and encourage leaders to take moral responsibilities more actively.

For example, leaders should be aware of the importance of ethicality themselves. They need to serve as role models for their subordinates to be moral people first. Leaders should also be encouraged to set clear ethical rules, clarify ethical boundaries, reward ethical behaviors and monitor unethical behaviors.

As we show, this does not only allow organizations to be moral entities, but it also has task-related implications in terms of enhancing creativity!


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.