Warding Off the Dark Side of Creativity
Creative employees are great at justifying deviant behavior. Smith School professor Hui Liao identifies a boundary condition that keeps them in line.
Nov 20, 2017

Warding Off the Dark Side of Creativity

Nov 20, 2017
As Featured In 
Journal of Business Ethics

Moral Identity Keeps Divergent Thinkers in Check

Creative people are great at generating ideas to solve problems. Unfortunately, the same people are also great at generating clever justifications to excuse their rule-breaking at work. Deviant behavior often results. New research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business confirms the dark side of creativity but also identifies a key boundary condition that keeps some out-of-the-box thinkers in line.

“Not all creative thinkers cause trouble,” says Smith School management professor Hui Liao, co-author of a new paper featured in the Journal of Business Ethics. “Moral identity moderates the effect of creativity, helping some nonconventional thinkers avoid ethical lapses.”

Liao, the Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management, says moral conduct is regulated by two major controls. The first is social sanctions. Fear of punishment or loss of reputation in society prevents some rule-breaking. But most unethical behavior goes undetected by others, which means social sanctions have limited deterrent power.

Internal sanctions play a more central role in preventing conduct like theft, fraud, withholding effort, physical and verbal aggression, sexual harassment, substance abuse, destruction of property and poor attendance. “Individuals usually do not conduct immoral or unethical behaviors unless they are able to find reasons to justify these actions,” Liao says.

Rigid or unimaginative thinkers lack the ability to see problems from diverse perspectives, so they have less room to roam within the ethical landscape. “Creative employees tend to have high levels of cognitive flexibility,” Liao says. “They can arrive at any conclusion they want to arrive at, so they are better at finding self-serving justifications for potential deviant behaviors.”

However, not all creative employees are the same. “Those with a high level of moral identity who value and strive to maintain a positive or honest self-view, for example, are less susceptible to moral disengagement,” Liao says.

She and her co-authors base their findings on two field studies in two industries, using different designs, samples and measures. In the first study they asked employees at a large bank to report their levels of moral identity and more disengagement, while supervisors rated employees’ creativity.

The second study involved surveys at a large manufacturing company. Employees reported their levels of moral identity, while supervisors rated employees’ creativity. Seven months later in a second wave of surveys, employees rated their levels of moral disengagement and workplace deviant behavior.

Participants in both studies were ensured anonymity to reduce fear of detection for hidden deviant behaviors. Liao and her co-authors also controlled for variables such as gender, age and experience.

“Both studies confirmed that creative employees are susceptible to rule-breaking only when their moral identity is low,” Liao says. “Divergent thinkers who know how to set boundaries for themselves — who aspire to high levels of moral identity — are better equipped to resist self-serving justification.”

Read more
Will Creative Employees Always Make Trouble? Investigating the Roles of Moral Identity and Moral Disengagement is featured in the Journal of Business Ethics. Authors include Xiaoming Zheng and Xin Liu from Tsinghua University in Beijing, Xin Qin from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, and Hui Liao from the University of Maryland.

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.

More in


Better Communication For Remote Teams
Email, instant messaging and Slack have been called essential for optimal communication among virtual work teams. But do these technologies really deserve the credit they get?
Oct 18, 2018
Exploring A Shortcut To Leadership
In just a few minutes each morning, worn-out leaders can set themselves up for a successful and positive day. The trick involves a little self-reflection, which can go a long way.
Oct 18, 2018
The Ripple Effects of a Good Boss
A good boss can overcome the effects of a bad one, leaving employees feeling autonomous and confident when they work on multiple teams with different supervisors.
Sep 27, 2018