Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Finding Your Happy, Creative Place

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It seems obvious that individuals with a happy work environment will be more creative and proactive, but there’s a school of thought among some managers and executives that insists keeping workers off balance makes them better workers. What does the research show?

In their book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer cite substantial research indicating that a positive inner work life enhances creativity and productivity. In 1987, Isen, Daubman, and Nowicki published their article “Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their experiment applied the traditional creative thinking task of presenting a subject with a box of thumbtacks and a candle, then asking the subject to suspend the candle over the table so no wax dripped onto its surface. Prior to setting out the task, the subjects were either shown a five-minute video clip from a comedy, five minutes of a film on concentration camps, or given a neutral task such as exercise or watching a math film. The experiment revealed that participants who watched the comedy were significantly more likely to find the problem’s solution.

Amabile, Kramer, and other authors criticize studies showing that stress results in improved performance by pointing out that any positive effects are short-lived, the experimental conditions addressed specific rather than generalized tasks, and that focus on external conditions hampers performance. Amabile and Kramer conducted a substantial study of mental affect on creativity by asking employees at several companies to record daily journal entries detailing one event that stood out each day. Based on their results, they concluded:

We even found a surprising carryover effect showing that creativity follows from positive emotion. The more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did the next day — and, to some extent, the day after that — even taking into account his moods on those later days. This may be due to what psychologists call an incubation effect. (p. 52)

In the face of this research, why do many managers feel the need to stress their employees through constant reorganizations or manipulative reward schemes? In my opinion, part of it comes down to control. Managers feel like they have to prove their worth by driving their reports to higher productivity than they would have achieved without the manager’s input. Other managers just like pushing people around. Finally, American industry still follows, at least in part, the scientific management philosophy of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylorization entailed breaking processes into component parts that workers could accomplish through rote memorization and adherence to established procedure. Perhaps these principles could work on an assembly line (though the Ford Motor Company experienced massive worker turnover until they modified their practices), but creative and knowledge worker tasks can’t be broken down in the same way.

None of us can be happy all the time, nor should we be. We’ll get frustrated, be unable to complete the tasks we’re assigned without substantial effort, and take many wrong turns as we try to advance the state of the art in our field. We need to be resilient and stand up to these perfectly normal pressures, but we shouldn’t have to suffer through needless stress imposed by management.

One of Amabile and Kramer’s main points is that workers do better when there’s a sense of progress. Even the little victories matter. In one sense, the little victories matter a lot. We’re all working toward a common goal, but it’s hard to maintain a positive attitude unless you feel like you’re moving toward that goal. Just as improv scenes move forward one line at a time, so do your work projects. Keep that momentum up, be ready to help each other, and try to stay positive.

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