Creativity from Constraint? How the Political Correctness Norm Influences Creativity in Mixed-sex Work Groups
Setting politically correct norms helps promote the free expression of ideas in mixed-sex work groups by reducing anxiety about sharing potentially offensive ideas.
As workplaces become increasingly gender diverse, existing research has failed to explain why such diversity can have a negative impact on idea generation. According to most diversity theories, mixed-sex groups have access to a wider range of perspectives and information than same-sex groups. Consequently, it is theorized that mixed-sex groups perform better on tasks that demand creativity. However, a number of studies have found either no relationship or a negative relationship between a work group’s gender diversity and creativity-relevant outcomes.
Using evidence from two group experiments, this paper tests the effects of manipulating a political correctness (PC) norm, one that sets clear expectations for how men and women should interact, on reducing uncertainty and boosting creativity in mixed-sex groups compared to same-sex groups. This paper examines the relationship of a team’s creativity as the group’s sex composition changes and PC norms are made salient.
Contrary to previous group creativity research that assumes creativity is unleashed by removing boundaries, the authors found that the PC norm promotes rather than suppresses the free expression of ideas. The PC norm facilitated mixed-sex groups’ expression of novel ideas, even raising their level of performance to match that of same-sex groups without the PC norm. Specifically:
- Mixed-sex groups generated significantly more novel ideas in the PC norm condition (mean = 43.39) than in the control condition (mean = 28.03)
- Same-sex groups performed worse in the PC condition (mean = 29.23) than they did without the PC norms (mean = 46.75). The authors suggest this may be because it seemed irrelevant and inappropriate, potentially confusing group members or distracting them from the task.
- Among groups assigned to the PC norm condition, there were no differences in the number of ideas generated between groups in the uncertainty condition (mean = 27.75) and those in the certainty condition (mean = 31.89), which was a 5-minute task in which students reflected about a time they had interacted with a member of the opposite sex and felt very uncertain or certain about how to behave.
- Moreover, the authors demonstrated how the PC norm condition influences group creativity particularly through the mechanism of reducing the uncertainty experienced in interactions between men and women in mixed-sex work groups.
- Among groups that were not assigned to the PC norm condition, groups in the uncertainty condition expressed significantly fewer ideas (mean = 21.94) than groups in the certainty condition (mean = 31.24).
- The authors discuss how a salient PC norm buffers against the negative effects of experiencing uncertainty on mixed-sex groups’ creativity; and also how this salient PC norm liberates idea exchange, regardless of whether the group is numerically dominated by men or women.
Overall, the study suggests that even though the U.S. labor force is now nearly equivalent in terms of men and women, performance-inhibiting uncertainty about how best to work together is still prevalent. The authors argue that making PC norms salient may play an important role in promoting gender parity at work by reducing the uncertainty that men and women experience when they interact with each other and allowing gender-diverse work groups to more freely exchange creative ideas.
The authors conducted two group experiments to investigate how the PC norm influences work groups’ uncertainty and creative idea expression. Study 1 compared how the PC norm affects idea expression in mixed-sex and same-sex groups, while Study 2 investigated whether the reduction of uncertainty experienced in interactions between men and women was a mediator or specific mechanism of this relationship in mixed-sex environments.
In Study 1, 264 undergraduates from two U.S. universities were paid $20 for participating in this experiment. Participants were randomly assigned to mixed- or same-sex groups of three, resulting in a total of 86 groups (49 in the mixed-sex and 37 in the same-sex condition). This study employed a 2 (PC norm vs. control) by 2 (mixed-sex vs. same-sex group composition) factorial design. Participants in the experimental groups were first primed with the PC norm – a 10-minute task in which they listed examples of political correctness that they heard of or directly experienced on their campus – before participating in the idea-generation task as a group. For the idea-generation task, groups were given 10-minutes to generate ideas for a new business to fill a vacant space of a mismanaged restaurant.
In Study 2, 219 undergraduates from two U.S. universities were paid $15 to participate. Participants were randomly assigned to mixed-sex groups of three, resulting in a total of 73 groups. This study employed a 2 (PC norm vs. control) by 2 (certain vs. uncertain) factorial design. Participants were assigned to groups and introduced. The experimental uncertainty condition consisted of a 5-minute, videotaped task in which students reflected about a time they had interacted with a member of the opposite sex and felt very uncertain about how to behave. Then, participants engaged in the same group idea-generation task as in Study 1. The experiment concluded with a post-experiment survey.