Here’s some advice for your next meeting: Hold thy tongue. Total freedom of speech, new research shows, has the potential to squash creativity. As it turns out, if you’re in a group of both men and women, abiding to standards of political correctness can help generate far better ideas than simply letting the conversation run wild.
This is a surprise. For years, conventional wisdom has suggested that anarchy breeds creativity, says lead author Jack Goncalo, an associate professor of organizational behavior. But in reality, it seems like a bit of structure can go a long way: “Anything that reduces the uncertainty,” Goncalo says, especially for mixed-gender groups, helps get the juices flowing. The Cornell researchers who figured this out tasked 483 students of both genders with a problem: What business should be built in an empty lot? The groups that were politically correct — for instance, who avoided sexist language — generated a greater number of ideas, and more novel ideas, than groups operating without the norm.
Many of us intuitively get what it means to be PC.
Why? When men and women enter the same space, both genders need to know what to expect, experts say, making some pre-defined rules helpful. For women, the ability to express ideas without fear of being patronized is key. For men, knowing what could put them in the doghouse is a useful metric.
But here’s the twist: Same-sex groups were far less creative when they had to abide by the political correctness standards. (Researchers didn’t ask about factors such as race and sexuality.) In a group of all dudes, for example, members were already, at least superficially, on the same page and unlikely to gender-offend. A standard of political correctness was an unnecessary mental burden. For women, much etiquette was already implicitly understood in the single-gendered group.
The upshot, for the researchers? Use the “political correctness” standard, explicitly. Don’t just say “be polite” or “be sensitive.” As annoying as the phrase may be, many of us intuitively get what it means to be PC, which means there’s little room for confusion, says Goncalo. Demanding political correctness is more “provocative,” he admits. But it’s also more useful, if you want to get your teams or classrooms thinking better.
Of course, plenty of folks maintain that constraints aren’t conducive to either competition or creativity. Worrying about what to say and what not to say is precious brainpower that could go toward creative thinking, says Kimberly Elsbach, professor of organizational behavior at the University of California, Davis. “It’s added mental stress.” Elsbach acknowledges that one person’s loss may be another’s gain, and for the good of the group as a whole. So the next time you want to think outside the box, stop before you “man up.”
Why you should care
Because shutting up might be the key to making big money.