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For worker creativity, it helps to think negative, new research finds

April 22, 2013

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170,

Like the mythological bird the phoenix, creativity rises from ashes

Neither crankiness nor nervousness are likely to be high on the list of qualities employers seek in workers. But negative feelings can contribute mightily to employee creativity, new research in a leading management journal finds.

While conceding that "a vast body of research confirms that positive affect, which encompasses feelings such as happiness and enthusiasm, leads to high creativity," a research paper in the Academy of Management Journal nonetheless concludes that creativity is highest when "a preceding phase of negative affect lay[s] the foundation for new ideas."

The reason? "Negative affect draws attention to problems and signals that effort needs to be invested to solve a problematic situation," the paper explains. By focusing "on incongruent and unexpected information," an episode of negative affect fosters "detailed and objective understanding of a situation."  And that can lay the basis, once the negative affect decreases, to breakthrough ideas.

"Two employees come to work in the morning, one somewhat grumpy, the other cheerful and friendly; who will have the more creative day?" asks Ronald Bledow of Ghent University, Belgium, who carried out the new research with Kathrin Rosing and Michael Frese of Leuphana University, Germany. ''The perky one is more likely to have an okay day. The grumpy one may have a fairly miserable day or a wonderfully creative day, depending on whether the grumpiness gets tempered and positive feelings come to the fore, a process we refer to as affective shift.

"Creativity is the sole province of neither negative nor positive affect but an ascent from one to the other. My co-authors and I compare it to the wonder of the phoenix, the mythological creature that burns to ashes but then resurrects from those ashes to become a beautiful bird."

Or, in the words of the study, "New ideas result as a consequence of a dynamic process in which a person experiences a phase of negative affect and subsequently leaves negative affect behind and enters a state of high positive affect...On the one hand, people need to be capable of tolerating episodes of negative affect; on the other hand, the ability to down-regulate negative affect is critical."

The paper's conclusions derive from two studies, one a field study involving some 102 professionals whose jobs that demanded creativity, the second an experimental study in a laboratory setting.

In the first study, professionals from a variety of fields, including business, psychology, engineering, and teaching, were asked to fill out daily for a week short online surveys just after they arrived for work in the morning and just before they left for home at the end of the day. At both times, subjects were asked to indicate on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely) their current affective state -- in a positive vein, to what extent they felt excited, interested, strong, active, inspired, and alert, and, in a negative vein, to what extent they felt scared, guilty, distressed, afraid, nervous, hostile, upset, and angry. At day's end they were asked to respond, on a scale of 1 to 5, to five statements assessing their creativity that day -- for example, "Today, I generated novel but operable work-related ideas," and "Today I served as a good role model for creativity."

For the sample as a whole, positive affect was considerably higher than negative affect both at the start and end of the day. More to the point, the relation between positive affect at day's end and creativity was significantly stronger if negative affect in the morning was high rather than low. In the words of the authors, "the sequence of negative affect in the morning of a work day followed by positive affect during the day was related to [higher] creativity."

To ascertain that this was not "a mere contrast effect on perception," the professors tested whether they got a similar result when participants were also asked at day's end to assess "perceived strain." The lack of a comparable effect suggested that the subjects' creativity evaluations did not just stem from contrasting morning and afternoon moods but were "creativity specific."

The second study consisted of a laboratory experiment in which professors engineered changes in subjects' affect within a matter of minutes. Eighty graduate students in psychology were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: one group was asked to write about a situation that made them feel afraid, distressed, or nervous, while the other group was simply asked to write down in detail their activities of the previous day. Then both groups were asked to write a short essay about a situation that made them feel happy, inspired, or enthusiastic. Finally, subjects proceeded to a brainstorming task that required them to write down in bullet points as many ideas, solutions, or suggestions they could think of on how teaching could be improved at the university.

As judged by independent raters who were unaware of the study's purpose, subjects in the first group (the "affective shift" group) achieved a mean score of 4.12 on a scale of 1 to 7 compared to 3.53 for the second group (the "control group"), a statistically significant difference. They also surpassed the second group in cognitive flexibility -- that is, the range of their ideas -- by a significant margin of 3.48 to 2.87. In sum, "an experimentally induced affective shift from negative to positive affect during a time interval of several minutes led to higher creativity than a mere increase in positive affect did."

What are the implications of the study's findings for workers and managers? "We assume different strategies are effective," the professors write. "For people who remain for a prolonged period of time in the mode of cognitive processing that is induced by negative affect [for example, too focused on isolated details or too constricted in making associations] strategies that facilitate down-regulation of negative thoughts and feelings may prove beneficial, such as techniques of self-relaxation and seeking out a socially supportive work environment. By contrast, the creativity of people who quickly down-regulate negative affect may benefit from an increased tolerance of negative thoughts and feelings such that negative affect is not brushed aside too quickly. A deliberate focus on information that elicits negative affect may be effective, for instance, by questioning preferred alternatives or by reflecting on barriers that could hinder goal pursuit."

As for managers, chewing out subordinates is not beyond the pale. "In some situations leaders may be better advised to turn employees' attentions to problematic aspects of a situation and to induce negative affect," the professors observe. "A prerequisite for the effectiveness of such a strategy is that employees have the ability to deal with negative affect. In situations in which negative affect is already present, helping employees to down-regulate negative affect and to increase positive affect should be a particularly effective strategy."

The paper, entitled "A Dynamic Perspective on Affect and Creativity," is in the April issue of the The Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 110 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives, and Academy of Management Learning and Education


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