Ideas for Leaders #266

Positive and Negative Drivers of Creativity

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Key Concept

There is no doubt that creativity is essential for organizations to thrive. But how can you inspire creativity in your organization? This Idea suggests that in addition to the popular perception that positivity inspires high creativity, negative affects also have an important role to play. In fact, when a combination of both negative and positive effects occur together, the highest levels of creativity take place.

Idea Summary

The complexity and competitiveness of today’s business environment means knowledge of how creativity can be stimulated within organizations has become critical for effective managerial practice. Previous research has confirmed that positive affects, such as feelings of happiness and enthusiasm, lead to high creativity. But is positive effect alone all that is needed to encourage creativity, or do negative effects have a role to play as well?

In a 2013 Working Paper, Michael Frese from NUS Business School, and fellow researchers Ronald Bledow and Kathrin Rosing, present the analogy of a phoenix—a mythological bird that burns to ashes and subsequently resurrects from its own ashes to become a colourful bird once more. The phoenix repeats this cycle over and over again, and so Frese et al propose that similarly, the emergence of new ideas is often preceded by and depends on a phase of negative effect.

Through two studies, they demonstrate that a dynamic interplay of positive and negative affect is related to creativity. In one study, they found that work days on which participants showed their highest levels of creativity were characterized by the presence of positive and negative affects in the morning, and a subsequent increase in positive affect and a decrease in negative affect. In their second study, they further showed that a shift from negative to positive affect during a time interval of several minutes led to higher creativity than a mere increase in positive affect did.

As negative effects are often conceptualized as the opposite of positive effects, its role in creativity has previously been overlooked, or undermined. But as this study demonstrates, an episode of negative effect can in fact lay the foundation for high creativity at a later point in time.

Methodology: Frese, Bledlow and Rosing conducted two studies to test their hypotheses. For the first study, they used a sample of 102 participants who were first asked to fill out a questionnaire, and later an online survey each morning and at the end of each work day to measure positive and negative effect and creativity.
The second study was experimental and in a controlled laboratory setting; 80 students were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the control condition, participants worked on a task followed by the induction of positive effect. In the other condition, negative effect was induced first and positive effect subsequently. Participants’ creativity was then assessed.

Business Application

This Idea highlights that regulating both positive and negative effects can act as potential leverage for increasing creativity and innovation in organizations. For example, leaders can achieve much more in this respect if they understand the dynamic interplay of both positive and negative effects.

In some situations, for example, it may be better to turn employees’ attentions to problematic aspects of a situation and to induce negative effect. In situations in which negative effect is already present, helping employees to downplay negative effect and to increase positive effect would be an effective strategy to increase creativity.

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Idea conceived

  • April 2013

Idea posted

  • November 2013

DOI number



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