Emotional ambivalence fuels organisational success

2006

People who are emotionally ambivalent – simultaneously feeling positive and negative emotions – tend to be more creative in the workplace than those who feel just happy or sad, or lack emotion at all, according to a new study.

That's because people who feel mixed emotions interpret the experience as a signal that they are in an unusual environment and respond to it by drawing on their creative thinking abilities, according to Christina Ting Fong, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Business School.

This increased sensitivity for recognising unusual associations, which happy or sad workers probably couldn't detect, is what leads to creativity in the workplace, she says.

"Due to the complexity of many organisations, workplace experiences often elicit mixed emotions from employees, and it's often assumed that mixed emotions are bad for workers and companies," said Fong, whose study appears in the October issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

"Rather than assuming ambivalence will lead to negative results for the organisation, managers should recognise that emotional ambivalence can have positive consequences that can be leveraged for organisational success."

Fong's research demonstrated that while there were no differences among happy, sad and neutral individuals, people who were feeling emotionally ambivalent performed significantly better on creativity tasks.

One implication of this is that when people feel mixed emotions, they see it as a signal that they are in a situation that might contain lots of unusual associations. Thus they respond by using more creative thinking.

"Managers who want to increase the creative output of their employees might benefit from following in the footsteps of companies like design firm IDEO or Walt Disney, which pride themselves on maintaining odd working environments," she said

"On some level, the bicycles that hang from the ceiling at IDEO and the colourful, casual environment at Disney probably help their employees sharpen their abilities to come up with novel and innovative ideas."

Fong said that in previous studies she found women who are in supervisory positions are more likely to be emotionally ambivalent than women in lower status positions. Combining her previous research with this study, Fong said, suggests that women in high-status positions will be more creative managers.

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