The Surprising Thing That Makes People Creative

The crankiest employee in the office might also be the most creative, new research shows.

A study in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal discovered that negative feelings and thoughts can contribute significantly to employee creativity. Specifically, researchers found that creativity is at its highest when it is preceded by a spell of negative thinking.

The study's authors, Ronald Bledow of Ghent University in Belgium and Kathrin Rosing and Michael Frese of Leuphana University in Germany, concluded that negative thinking draws attention to problems and signals that effort needs to be invested in order to solve those problems. The negative thinking not only helps foster a more detailed and objective understanding of the situation, but it can also lay the basis — once the negative thoughts dissipate — to breakthrough ideas.

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"My co-authors and I compare it to the wonder of the phoenix, the mythological creature that burns to ashes but then resurrects from those ashes to become a beautiful bird," Bledow said.

The researchers found that new ideas are the consequence of a dynamic process in which a person experiences a phase of negative thinking and feeling, which is followed by a state of highly positive feeling and thinking.

The researchers came to their conclusions based on the results of several studies, including one that asked more than 100 professionals from a variety of fields — including business, psychology, engineering and education — to complete daily online surveys just after they arrived for work in the morning and just before leaving at the end of the day. They found that therelationship between the level of creativity was significantly stronger for those who experienced negative thinking in the morning.

The researchers believe the study has strong implications for managers trying to induce the most creativity out of their employees.

"In some situations, leaders may be better advised to turn employees' attentions to problematic aspects of a situation" the researchers wrote in the study.

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