Here's some advice for your next office meeting: Hold your tongue. Total freedom of speech, recent research showed, has the potential to squash creativity. As it turns out, if you're in a group of both men and women, adhering to standards of political correctness can help generate far better ideas than simply letting the conversation run wild.
This came as a surprise to researchers. For years, conventional wisdom suggested that anarchy bred 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.
Why? When men and women enter the same space, both genders need to know what to expect, experts say, making some predefined 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.
On the other hand, plenty of people maintain that constraints aren't conducive to 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. Elsbach says that sometimes one person's loss may be another's gain, and for the good of the group as a whole.
And 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 an all-male group, 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 of the etiquette already was understood implicitly in the single-gendered group.
The upshot for the Cornell researchers? With mixed-gender groups, 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.