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Do Worry, Be Happy

Most of the events in our lives provoke a range of emotions. At a wedding, we might weep while smiling, and at a funeral, we may laugh through our tears. The fact is, emotions are messy things, and seldom are they unequivocal. Yet at work, we’re usually expected to remain relentlessly upbeat, even if our true feelings are decidedly more complicated. According to a new study, however, organizations might want to change how they feel about mixed emotions.

The study found that individuals who experience ambiguous feelings—meaning both positive and negative emotions—are more creative and innovative than those individuals whose feelings are more straightforward. That’s because people who feel mixed emotions interpret the experience as a signal that they are in an unusual environment and thus respond to it by drawing upon their creative thinking abilities, says Christina Ting Fong, an assistant professor at the University of Washington business school who conducted the study.

“Due to the complexity of many organizations, 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 appeared in the October issue of the Academy of Management Journal. “Rather than assuming ambivalence will lead to negative results for the organization, managers should recognize that emotional ambivalence can have positive consequences that can be leveraged for organizational success.”

For her research, Fong conducted two studies. In the first, she asked 102 college students to write about certain emotional experiences in their lives with the goal of invoking in them feelings of happiness, sadness, neutrality, or ambivalence. She then had them complete a commonly used measure of creativity called the Remote Associates Test that explored their ability to recognize common themes among seemingly unrelated words. The results demonstrated that while there were no differences among happy, sad, and neutral individuals, people who were feeling emotionally ambivalent performed significantly better on this creativity task.

For the second study, she showed the 138 students either a film clip of the comedy Father of the Bride or a dull screen saver. In the film clip, a young woman, on the eve of her wedding day, discussed with her father the joy associated with her upcoming wedding and the sadness involved with growing up and entering adulthood. The screensaver and the clip were chosen to make people feel either neutral or ambivalent, respectively. Then the students took the Remote Associates Test.

She found that the emotionally ambivalent people who saw the clip showed increased creativity in comparison to those who watched the screensaver, but only when they believed their emotional ambivalence was unusual. Surprisingly, she said, no relationship was found between positive emotions and creativity or negative emotions and creativity.

According to Fong, one implication of this research is that when people feel mixed emotions, they see this as a signal that they are in a situation that might contain lots of unusual associations, and thus will need to respond by using more creative thinking.

One takeaway from Fong’s research is that, rather than try to overcome every negative emotion, organizations might be better served by accepting a certain amount of ambiguity as necessary, even beneficial. “There are definitely organizations that have strong norms against admitting negative emotions, and these norms might lead to employees not allowing themselves to feel emotional ambivalence,” she says. “This would mean that they would be less creative than employees in firms where emotional ambivalence is accepted.”

To reap the full creative benefits, however, emotional ambiguity should not be an everyday occurrence. “It’s important to note that we must feel that emotional ambivalence is unusual in order to see the effect on creativity,” says Fong. “In other words, if you're feeling mixed emotions, and you think this is a normal state of affairs, you won't be more creative. It's only people that are emotionally ambivalent, and feel that this is a strange emotional experience, that demonstrate increased creativity.”

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