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Good moods are fine, but it's in tandem with bad ones that they most boost workers' creativity, study suggests

June 1, 2007

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

How do workers' moods affect their creativity? Are positive moods or negative moods more likely to abet it? To date, research has focused on the effects of one kind of mood or the other, positive or negative; now a new study suggests creativity is enhanced by both in tandem.

According to the study in the current Academy of Management Journal, workers are most creative when they alternate between strongly positive and strongly negative moods -- for example, when they wax enthusiastic about a project on Monday but turn irritable about it on Thursday or feel jittery about it on Tuesday but a few days later are determined to see it through.

"Supervising the kind of workers whose moods swing between strongly negative and strongly positive can be a considerable challenge," comments Jennifer George of Rice University, who carried out the study with her Rice colleague Jing Zhou. "But there's likely to be a big payoff in creativity."

The creativity of such workers plummets, however, if their boss is not supportive, the professors also find. As they put it, "Creativity was actually lowest when both [positive and negative] mood states were high and the context was unsupportive."

The study may help reconcile seemingly conflicting findings that have emerged in past research probing moods' link to creativity. For example, laboratory experiments have found positive moods to be associated with such creativity-related phenomena as divergent thinking, unusual word associations, and superior problem-solving. In contrast, other studies have found negative moods to foster creativity and positive moods to inhibit it.

While simple intuition may suggest creativity to be tied to high spirits, its link to low ones would seem less obvious. The professors explain: "Negative moods signal a problematic state of affairs and propel us to systematically address the problem, figure out what's wrong and fix things... [They] cause us to focus on the current state of affairs rather than our preexisting assumptions, and motivate us to exert high levels of effort to improve matters."

Faced with the discrepant results of earlier research, the professors posited that bad and good moods complemented each other to promote creativity in the context of supervisor support. Thus, negative moods tend to engender a healthy skepticism about the status quo, while positive moods "promote a sense of confidence and divergent thinking...If only one of them exists, the absence of the other would make it much less useful or effective in enhancing creativity."

To test all this, the researchers conducted a survey in a unit of a large oil-field-services company in which creativity was at a premium. Their sample consisted of 161 employees and their supervisors. Educational attainment among the employee cohort ranged from high school diplomas to doctorates, with close to half the sample having earned bachelors' degrees. Whites accounted for about 76% of the responding employees, with Asians and Hispanics accounting for most of the rest. About 15% of the employees were women.

The questionnaire for the workers contained a list of descriptors of moods or states of minds, ten of them positive (interested, excited, strong, enthusiastic, proud, alert, inspired, determined, attentive, active) and ten of them negative (distressed, upset, guilty, scared, hostile, irritable, ashamed, nervous, jittery, afraid). Respondents were asked to estimate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how applicable each had been to them during the past week at work, 1 indicating "slightly or not at all" and 5 signifying "extremely." They were also asked to rate their supervisor, on a scale of 1 to 7, on three things -- feedback, fairness, and trustworthiness.

Supervisors in turn were asked to gauge to what extent each of 13 creativity-related statements applied to individual workers -- for example, "Comes up with new and practical ideas to improve performance" or "Suggests new ways of performing work tasks" or "Comes up with creative solutions to problems."

The professors found that scores indicative of strong negative moods translated into high creativity ratings provided two conditions were met -- workers enjoyed good supervisor support and experienced strong positive moods during the past week in addition to the strong negative ones. Employees in all three conditions -- high positive mood, high negative mood, high supervisor support -- scored significantly higher on creativity than all other workers, including those with high scores for positive moods and supervisor support but low scores on negative moods.

In conclusion, the authors write, "We would not advocate promoting negative moods, but employees do experience them. Our results suggest that naturally occurring negative moods are not simply an unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable, part of organizational life that should be minimized as much as possible... [M]anagers can encourage employees in negative moods to identify potential problems and think of ways to improve things. Additionally, when employees are experiencing predominantly positive moods, managers can encourage them to be systematic in their approach, pay attention to the facts at hand, and put forth high levels of effort to address all relevant issues."

The study, entitled "Dual Tuning in a Supportive Context: Joint Contributions of Positive Mood, Negative Mood, and Supervisory Behaviors to Employee Creativity" is in the June/July issue of the Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication, now in its 50th year, is published every other month by the academy, which, with more than 17,000 members in 92 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

Media Coverage:
The Washington Post. Yin, Yang and the Boss. (Tuesday, June 19, 2007).

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