The best way to get ahead at work? Stay politically correct

Groups where “social censorship” is put into place are more productive, the research found

Zlata Rodionova
Monday 01 February 2016 15:02 GMT

You might think that being able to express yourself freely is a vital part of fulfilling your potential at work.

But a study at Cornell University has found that clear rules of communication between opposite genders can actually help fuel creativity in a team.

Researchers conducted two experiments with a total of 582 participants. For the study, participants were randomly divided into mixed-sex and same-sex groups - some were instructed to be “politically correct” and “polite” while others did not receive any instructions. They were then given a creative task and asked to brainstorm ideas.

Creativity was measured by how many ideas came out of the group work.

Groups where “social censorship” was put into place were more productive, the research found. The groups were given social rules to abide by with one another along the gender divide. Sexuality and race were not covered.

The research argued that by avoiding offensive expressions and softening their language, teammates worked together more productively.

Women in the research became more confident about expressing their ideas when rules of political correctness were reinforced.

But there was a catch.

Same-sex groups generated significantly fewer ideas when they had to follow “politically correct” standards imposed by the study.

Researchers thought this was because people of the same sex didn’t need to abide by rules to avoid offending one another. The rules may have instead stifled creativity by creating an unnecessary mental burden.

“Our work challenges the widespread assumption that true creativity requires a kind of anarchy in which people are permitted to speak their minds, whatever the consequence,” Jack Goncalo, associate professor of organisational behaviour in the ILR School told the Cornell Chronicle.

Political correctness facilitates more comfortable sharing of creative ideas in male-female teams by reducing the uncertainty or “fear to offend” that people tend to experience when interacting with the opposite sex.

But what the research finding mean for gender relations at work is troubling, according to Goncalo.

“The fact that men and women still experience a high level of uncertainty while working together and that a norm as restrictive as political correctness provided a safer environment for free expression means we still have a lot of work to do,” Goncalo said.

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