A counterintuitive strategy for doing better work in groups

To facilitate creativity in a group brainstorming session, it seems like you’d want people to say whatever comes to their mind, with as little filtering as possible.

But new research suggests imposing constraints on people’s thinking processes can actually make them more creative.

The study, led by Cornell University’s Jack Goncalo, Ph.D., found that mixed-gender groups that thought about political correctness generated more original ideas than other similar teams.

That could be because men tend to avoid saying or acting in certain ways that women might perceive as offensive, while women are hesitant to share ideas that might be rejected altogether. So members of both genders generally share fewer novel ideas in mixed-gender settings.

Yet when everyone thinks about being politically correct, men may become more aware of the specific language to avoid, and women may assume they will be treated more fairly.

In one experiment designed to test this phenomenon, the researchers divided participants into same-sex and mixed-sex groups. Some participants were asked to think about ways to be either politically correct, sensitive, or polite; others simply wrote about what they had done the day before. Finally, all groups spent 10 minutes generating ideas for a new business to fill a vacant lot.

Results showed that the mixed-sex groups that thought about political correctness were significantly more creative than all the other mixed-sex groups.

Among same-sex groups, those that thought about political correctness were ultimately less creative. That’s possibly because the task seemed irrelevant or inappropriate when all members of the group belonged to the same sex.

The researchers write that leaders should consider the composition of their groups when thinking about how to best foster creativity. Specifically, in mixed-sex groups, talking about political correctness might be a way to reduce conflict and stimulate ideation.

Still, the researchers note that over time, members of mixed-sex teams could become more familiar with one another, and thinking about political correctness may not be such a useful strategy. Moreover, team members may start to notice other, deeper types of diversity, such as differences in values.

But for situations in which coworkers are just getting to know each other, thinking or talking about political correctness may be a simple, if counterintuitive, strategy for getting them to loosen up a little.

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