Why negative emotions can spark creativity

Dr Michael Parke explores how feeling worried or frustrated can push people to achieve better results


A happy workforce can do wonders for your organisation’s productivity and creativity. But the idea that employees must always feel great to produce their best work is debateable, according to Michael Parke, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.

In their research paper ‘The Role of Affect Climate in Organizational Effectiveness’, Dr Parke and Myeong-Gu Seo, Associate Professor of Management and Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, explore why both positive and negative emotions can drive creativity. They also look at the link between a company’s emotional climate and the levels of innovation and productivity. 

“There’s been a lot of research into emotions and how they influence or affect someone’s creativity,” Dr Parke says. “Positive feelings such as enthusiasm and excitement can encourage people to be more creative because they expand cognitive flexibility and enhance motivation. Negative emotions such as worry, anxiety and frustration can also increase creativity, but through different means as they focus the mind and make you more critical, which may result in a better outcome.”

Dr Parke says the way feelings influence team creativity depends on which of the two emotional climates your business has. The first is the “positive experiential climate”, in which employees are encouraged to share their feelings in order to establish a more productive, innovative and creative environment. The idea is that people harbouring negative emotions can share and work through them with their colleagues, turning a negative situation into a positive one. Leaders in these environments work hard to ensure employees are genuinely happy, as they believe a contented workforce spurs people to achieve better results.  

“In these environments, leaders pay careful attention to people’s emotions and make sure that the disruptive effects of anger and frustration don’t take hold,” Dr Parke says. “They address issues and focus on bringing employees back to a more positive state.” 

Channelling emotions to achieve better results  

The second environment is the “authentic experiential climate”, where leaders have no preference when it comes to positive or negative emotions. Their aim is to help channel someone’s feelings – whether good or bad – into their work in order to achieve the best results. Some bosses working in this climate  will curb enthusiasm and make people feel slightly dissatisfied by giving constructive feedback. “If someone clearly thinks they’ve done a good job, the leader may say, ‘Now, how can we get better?’ They do it to make sure people don’t get too satisfied or content with the current results,” Dr Parke explains. 

Based on his research, Dr Parke believes an authentic experiential climate is highly conducive for sparking creativity. His study – which involved assessing several businesses from a range of sectors and interviewing managers at a leading technology company – suggests that tempering people’s sense of satisfaction after they complete a project successfully can spark their creativity and motivate them to do better next time.  

The research also shows that negative emotions such as frustration and anxiety can focus the mind, making someone more attentive. “Let’s say you’re reviewing a paper or article you’ve written; to make it better, being in a more negative mood means you’re more likely to spot errors or ways in which to improve the work,” he says. “But they also have to keep an eye on any employees with negative feelings, as they don’t want them withdrawing or becoming too heated in a conflict.”

Managing emotions in an authentic experiential climate is a balancing act. Be too negative and you risk demotivating the workforce, as a New York Times article showed in 2015. The piece looked at Amazon’s mandate to push its white-collar workers as hard as possible to achieve the company’s ever-expanding ambitions. 

Employees who struggled with the relentless pace were told to work faster. Bosses encouraged them to tear apart each other’s ideas in meetings, answer emails long into the night and meet what one staff member described as “unreasonably high” demands. Bo Olson, another critic and a former Amazon employee who left his marketing role after two years, said nearly every person he worked with had, at one time or other, cried at their desk.  

Satisfaction can lead to complacency

In contrast, too much positivity can lead to complacency and an environment where people lack the drive to improve. Research carried out by psychological scientists Chak Fu Lam from University of Suffolk, University of Michigan’s Gretchen Spreitzer and Charlotte Fritz of Portland State University found that positive behaviour in the workplace can decline when feelings of happiness and satisfaction go beyond a certain point. 

Generally speaking, unhappy workers are expected to feel demotivated or complacent. But upbeat employees may stop trying to improve when, in their mind, work is going really well. “Positive affect can reach a level such that employees perceive that they are doing well and it is not necessary for them to take initiatives, thereby reducing their proactive behaviours,” the academics wrote in an article for the Journal of Organizational Behavior

Their research involved asking 236 employees at a software development firm to rate positive statements such as ‘I feel alive and vital at work’, or ‘I have energy and spirit at work’. Then, their supervisors rated each worker and their level of proactive behaviour in the office, such as encouraging colleagues or speaking up about certain issues. 

The results show that proactive behaviour generates positivity up to a certain level. Employees who classed their mood as moderately positive were the most proactive. The most upbeat and least happy workers exhibited fewer positive behaviours.    

Getting the balance right is tricky. But leaders who can judge when to give positive feedback or constructive criticism in an authentic experiential climate are more likely to see more creativity and productivity from their staff.  

Comments (3)

HawkInc 6 years, 8 months and 19 days ago

Rather, you should always ask the question what's next in a positive tone to set the new experience off right.

HawkInc 6 years, 8 months and 19 days ago

I agree with Dr. Parked in his claim that negotiate emotions can spark creativity (upper and middle management disagreement on programmatic issues) but I do not think making them feel dissatisfied in such a blunt way is appropriate.

cagbakwuru978 6 years, 8 months and 24 days ago

When we talk about negative emotions it could mean, hatred, wickedness, envy, racism etc. This is quite different from state of the mind or mindset probably created by negative situations eg frustration, disappointments, abject lack, which of course could enhance creativity and general performance in certain individuals if properly managed. Therefore, negative emotions can rarely lead to creativity rather breeds negative influences amongst individuals.