Study Shows One Bad Mood Can Harm Creativity

It’s often said that one bad apple can spoil the barrel. This is true even in teams. When one person is in a bad mood, it often affects those around them, even to the point of deterring great ideas from coming forth.

It’s often said that one bad apple can spoil the barrel. This is true even in teams. When one person is in a bad mood, it often affects those around them, even to the point of deterring great ideas from coming forth.

In “Shifting focus: The influence of affective diversity on team creativity,” Lynne Vincent, assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, and her co-author, Kyle Emich (University of Delaware) find the nature of team members’ emotional states can significantly affect their team’s creative process and ultimate creative outcomes . They conducted three studies involving 1,625 participants on 427 teams and found that when team members were overly positive, and focused on achieving positive outcomes, they focused their teams on idea generation, resulting in the selection of more novel ideas. But, when team members were experiencing tension or fear, their teams were not able to come up with anything new or groundbreaking.

“Our emotions affect our daily organizational lives, so it so it becomes crucial that we understand how our emotions affects our team’s outcomes and processes and, moreover, how our emotions interact with those of our teammates,” explains Vincent.

Current research examines what happens when everyone is experiencing the same emotion, but what makes this study different, according to Vincent, is the focus on how diverse emotions affect teams. “Teams are more than composites of their members,” she says. “They are systems that individual members actively engage within.”

But, is having a team member in a bad mood truly bad for creative outcomes? Vincent says not necessarily. It all depends on the type of bad mood. “If you’re angry, it has the potential to help the team, because that anger may allow you to generate more novel ideas and propel the team forward,” she says. “But if you’re scared, our results show fewer ideas are generated and selected.”

This tells a cautionary tale for managers supervising creative teams, who may benefit from emotional intelligence training to help them analyze and understand others’ emotions.

As Vincent says “Fear may emerge for different reasons. Someone may be concerned about success, which may impact her standing in the organization or ability to keep her job. She might be concerned about the availability of resources. She might be scared that her ideas will be negatively evaluated by the organization. Managers need to be attentive to team members and reduce any sense of fear. Fear from even one person can negatively affect the team and damage their creative performance, which may contribute to even more fear.”

The results of this study, forthcoming in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, might be particularly useful for teams working in NGOs or for philanthropic causes who are generating ideas to promote the welfare of the world or resolve an injustice. “Again, the focus should be on activity and energy as more passive deactivated states such as relaxation do not seem to facilitate team creativity,” says Vincent.

Some organizations that survive on their ability to continuously innovate already invoke practices that influence the affective states of their employees, thereby enhancing creativity.

“Noted creative companies, such as Google, Facebook and Yelp, provide their employees game rooms, open bars, Disneyland inspired facades, restaurants and even giant twisting slides to move between floors,” said Vincent. “Our findings suggest that in addition to other purported benefits, such as decreasing turnover and reducing stress, these tactics may enhance the creative processes of the teams that these organizations rely on to enact their innovative missions by manipulating their employees into emotionally positive states.”

Overall, these findings show that one strong mood can encourage or derail the creativity of an entire team. So, understanding how employees feel, why they feel that way, and how to address those feelings is important for any organization that relies of creativity and innovation to succeed.