How To Make Rule-Followers Think Outside the Box

How Ethical Leaders Give Employees Space to Be Creative

Jun 03, 2020
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

Can you be a strict rule-follower and still an out-of-the-box thinker? With the right person in charge, finds new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, it’s possible to be the type of employee companies want: ethical and creative.

Previous research has demonstrated that creative people are more likely to break the rules, so Maryland Smith management professors Hui Liao and Rellie Derfler-Rozin wondered if this also meant people with a stronger moral compass are less creative. “Is there indeed a tradeoff between morality and creativity?” they asked.

Through a series of experiments and field studies, Liao and Derfler-Rozin – working with four co-authors, including Smith PhD grad Elijah X.M. Wee, now at the University of Washington – confirmed that people who are high on “moral ownership” usually are less creative. But with the right boss, they find, companies can give them space to be creative. The research is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“People who are higher on moral ownership spend a lot of time and energy not only making sure that they do not violate ethical rules, they also spend time and energy monitoring other people on the team,” says Liao. “They don’t have time and energy left for other extra job roles, like being creative.”

Employees should not have to play the moral police, says Liao, at least not as their primary role. A leader can and should take on that role, she says, to take the burden off the morally conscious employees so they can relax and be more creative.

But it’s not enough for organizations to just hire ethical leaders, says Derfler-Rozin. They have to make sure leaders put effort into signaling it, because the boost to creativity only comes when a leader actively displays ethics.

“We know from previous studies that the leader needs to define what is ethical and what is not,” she says. “They need to lay out clear rules in terms of ethics and the boundaries. They have to reward ethical behavior and punish unethical behavior. They have to be very explicit.”

Team leaders are better positioned to reinforce behavioral expectations, say the researchers. As long as the leader is watching whether people are staying in line, then employees have more time and resources to be creative.

“Tell employees as long as they don’t cross the line, they are encouraged to try anything,” says Liao.

This should take the pressure off even the strictest rule-followers and be a boon to the organization. “It doesn’t mean that employees of a high moral ownership are doomed to be less creative individuals – they are just burdened with being the moral police,” says Liao. “If you relieve them of that burden, they can be creative, too.”

Read more:In Line and Out of the Box: How Ethical Leaders Help Offset the Negative Effect of Morality on Creativity,” (Liu, X., Liao, H., Rozin, R., Zheng, X., Wee, E., & Qiu, F.), is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.


About the Author(s)

Hui Liao

Dr. Hui Liao is the endowed Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Before joining Maryland, she was on the faculties of the Rutgers University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her Ph.D. with concentrations in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and her BA in International Economics from the Renmin University of China.

Rellie Derfler-Rozin

Rellie Derfler-Rozin is an associate professor of management & organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She received her PhD in organizational behavior from London Business School. She studies decision making in the social context. In her research, she looks at how people may deviate from decisions/behaviors that are rational from a pure profit maximization (traditional economics) perspective to satisfy needs that relate to their social world (e.g. the need to belong to a group, the need to have status in the group). Within this broad umbrella she is studying managerial decision making (e.g. looking at how managers may be averse to use their discretion in allocation decisions to satisfy belongingness needs to their group of employees), trust and ethics (e.g. looking at how group members who are at risk of social exclusions may show higher trusting behaviors and unethical behaviors that serve the group in an effort to promote re-inclusion in the group). More theme-related topics of interest to her are emotions, ethics, status and hiring decision biases.

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