x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Light side is the right side

Some experts have argued that more creativity needs to be fostered within the UAE's workforce. But what if there is a dark side to creativity?

Nick Leeson, centre, the former derivatives broker who brought about the downfall of Barings Bank in 1995.
Nick Leeson, centre, the former derivatives broker who brought about the downfall of Barings Bank in 1995.

Some experts say more creativity needs to be fostered within the UAE's workforce.

After all, creative employees help conceptualise new products and services that ultimately drive a business on the road to success.

But there is evidence of a "dark side" to creativity in other parts of the world.

A growing body of research has found creativity can, in certain circumstances, encourage rule-bending, specifically by promoting workers' motivation to think outside the box. That, in turn, can lead to unethical behaviour, according to a paper examining a handful of studies on the link between creativity and dishonesty. The study was released this year by Harvard Business School and the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, both in the US.

The theory might sound far-fetched, but individuals such as Nick Leeson help illustrate how a little creative rationalisation can lead to dire consequences in the business world. Mr Leeson is the former derivatives broker who has long claimed he started trading from a brokerage account he first used to hide a mistake by one of his colleagues. But as Mr Leeson continued to use the account, he amassed losses of more than £200 million (Dh1.2 billion), which eventually helped bring down Britain's oldest merchant lender, Barings Bank in 1995. Mr Leeson was sent to prison the same year.

What is most interesting about the research is it does not focus on outsiders within the business community, such as Mr Leeson, or Bernie Madoff, jailed in the US two years ago after operating a huge Ponzi scheme. Rather, research suggests normally honest people who work in creative roles find it easier to develop strategies to bypass moral rules. They also find it easier to fabricate stories and recreate reality, says Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioural economics at Duke University, which has a campus in Dubai.

"This kind of cheating that we're studying is not the cheating of crooks," says Mr Ariely, who is to speak at a conference in Abu Dhabi this year. "It's the kind of cheating that all of us can do," he adds.

Creative types who display dishonest behaviour might work in any number of fields. But there are certain situations that tend to give people more opportunities to cheat, experts say.

Some employees who file expense reports find ways to inflate bills. Others, such as lawyers or consultants for example, may tack on additional time to their billable hours. Then there are those working professionals who justify taking loose change from a petty-cash box by telling themselves they are owed it from another time or they saw a colleague do the same. "You can tell yourself all kinds of stories," says Mr Ariely.

Of course, not every creative person in work is out to inflate expense reports or steal office supplies. But in trying to find solutions to certain problems, people may think about ethical loopholes and cross that line from creative to immoral. "It's a question of the person," says Mr Ariely. "But it's also a question of the environment — which environment will allow people to tell you more stories."

So how can bosses guard against dishonesty in creative employees? "The same way they maintain checks on 'non-creative' people," says Michael Willemyns, an associate professor of management at the University of Wollongong in Dubai. "It may be that creative people have more autonomy in the workplace, and therefore are not as closely monitored as people in routine jobs."

While Mr Ariely says creative people are needed in industry, companies should limit the opportunities available for those individuals to fabricate reasons or justifications for wrongdoings. More rigorous workplace rules would also help guard against cheats, he adds.

In the Middle East, ethics guidelines are more commonplace, and more companies are bringing in new standards for the UAE's business community.

Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank recently partnered the UAE's Higher Colleges of Technology to create the country's first Institute of Islamic Economics and Ethics, which aims to provide information and raise awareness about doing business ethically.

The organisation will also provide training for companies and small to medium-sized businesses within the UAE and is currently trying to hire a leader to run it, says a spokeswoman for the bank.

And help maintain the beacon of creative fair-play.