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Ambivalence and Creativity

On October 31st

You may have seen this one — a news item that was making the rounds a few weeks ago:

SEATTLE, Oct. 8 (UPI) — Those with ambivalence, feeling positive and negative emotions at once, are more creative than those who are happy, sad or lack emotion, says a U.S. study.Christina Ting Fong, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Business School, says this increased sensitivity for recognizing unusual associations, which happy or sad workers probably couldn’t detect, is what leads to creativity in the workplace.

This makes enough sense. It’s often noted by those who study creativity that tolerance for contradiction, ambiguity, and complexity is a key factor. Psychoanalysts like to cite Keats, who defined a quality he called “Negative capability”:
Dr. Fong has some wonderful findings and an interesting vein of research. Her data might have more implications than she realizes. The capacity to hold contradictory feelings and attitudes in mind shows cognitive and emotional complexity. We psychoanalysts recognize that there is a developmental accomplishment when a child can be angry at a loved one, while still loving them. Not everyone makes this step in life. When we’re threatened enough, all of us can retreat to a position of experiencing people in the primitive mode of all-good/all-bad. A well-functioning person can recover to a more three-dimensional experiencing of people as complex, embracing good, bad, and gradations in between. This is an emotional place where contradictions and apparent contradictions can be integrated — a creative state of mind.

“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 appears in 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.”

Ok, good enough. But wait to see what comes next:

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, according to Fong. “On some level, the bicycles that hang from the ceiling at IDEO and the colorful, casual environment at Disney probably help their employees sharpen their abilities to come up with novel and innovative ideas,” said Fong.

D’Oh! . . . In an economy where creative output is at a premium, it is good for managers to be attuned to these things. But it’s not about wacky office design. It’s about recruiting and cultivating people whose emotional and mental complexity allows them to see new things. One subtext of the article is that creative individuals will not always wholeheartedly love the boss, or the team, or the company, or the project — and if managers can stand this and not squash it down, they may reap the benefits.

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