Suck My Kiss by Jan Tik. CC BY 2.0

Being Happy Makes You Less Productive. Sometimes.

E. Forrest Christian Managing, Motivation, Reviews - Articles 2 Comments

We all want to be happy. At least in the States, being happy is the closest thing to Nirvana. But it turns out that research has shown that sad workers will often out-perform happier ones.

Two psychologists at the University of Alberta, Professor Robert Sinclair (now with Laurentian University in Sudbury, ON) and PhD student Carrie Lavis, published some research in 2001 on work they did with workers in a printed circuit board factory. They made some of the workers sad, about as sad as one would get after watching a sad movie. These workers didn’t make more boards, but had fewer errors, and therefore made more usable product (less rework).

It seems that sad people use work to distract themselves from their sadness. They may also be more reflective. Happy workers see work as a distraction, too, but from their happiness.

Of course, there are several caveats.

(Sinclair and a later BA student reported findings that introverts are more accurate in performance evaluations.)

I can’t help but notice that this is Level 1 workers. The timespan of discretion for these roles isn’t very long. I wonder if there is a different effect for roles with longer timespans.

The research I talked about last week, showing that optimists were better at predicting their own performance over time, it would be interesting to see if sad workers continued to be more accurate.

It is also true that this is a simplistic look at affect (emotional state) and decision making. A more complex look is available in:

Gasper, Karen & Isbell, Linda M. 2007. “Feeling, Searching, and Preparing: How Affective States Alter Information Seeking”. In Kathleen D. Vohs, Roy F. Baumeister, George Loewenstein (eds).Do emotions help or hurt decision making?: a hedgefoxian perspective. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.

Happy Alice, with pen
Might not be the best person for the job. Then again, she might.

(Yes, it’s Loewenstein again.)

For example, here’s their take on how affective state affects performance:

When considering the question of whether affect is good or bad for decision making, one must also consider that the same afective state could be beneficial or detrimental depending on which types of processes and outcomes lead to task success. For example, because happy moods signal that the environment is safe and that one should proceed, happy moods facilitate performance on tasks for which it is beneficial to view the situation as being safe and free of constraints, such as creativity tasks (Gasper 2004b; Isen 1984; Murray et al. 1990). Meanwhile, they would hinder performance on tasks for which it is important to exercise caution and be conservative, such as solving syllogisms (Melton 1995). Conversely, because sad moods indicate that the environment is problematic, they facilitate performance on tasks in which it is beneficial to view the situation cautiously and conservatively, such as solving syllogisms (Melton 1995). In contrast, sad moods hinder performance on tasks in which it is important to operate without constraints, such as creativity tasks (Gasper 2004b). Therefore, mood states cannot be easily classified as beneficial or detrimental to the decision making process. Their influence depends on whether the mood state activates strategies that benefit the task at hand. [97-98]

In case you got lost in that mass of “We need a professional editor, badly!” text, the upshot is that for creativity-based tasks you want happy people, but for work that requires accuracy or risk awareness, you need sad people

Sometimes you need both.

Take, for example, a software development project. The software developers work better happy when they are figuring out solutions. The software testers should be sad people, because they need to be accurate. (People with Asberger’s are on my list of the best for software testing.) You need both, which means that as a project manager or development manager, you will need to navigate the competing norms of the two groups.

This is why people who come from just one particular silo make such horrible cross-functional managers: they haven’t learned that their default affective style is inappropriate and ineffective for some types of work.

So which are you? Are you a “happy” worker or a “sad” one? Or have you learned to balance the two?

Image Credit: “Suck my Kiss“, © Jan Tik. Via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Smiling child. © E. Forrest Christian. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 2

  1. Regarding the theory of how happy/sad affect driving creative/risk-avoidant task success, it does seem to have some face validity. However, I tend to think that doing creative work could result in increased positive affect while looking for problems could result in increased negative affect. Assuming that a causal relationship does exist, is the starting point the affective state or the type of task?

    “This is why people who come from just one particular silo make such horrible cross-functional managers: they haven’t learned that their default affective style is inappropriate and ineffective for some types of work.”

    Really? You don’t think the more likely culprit is a 3 trying to do 4 work?

  2. Post

    Even when they do have sufficient capacity. Some of this is the problem of work domains; but it’s also simply a problem of exposure. Many people who have been very successful in a silo have a hard time abandoning methods that are successful there but don’t work in other activity disciplines. The fact that their bosses do not see the problem and the system does not help prepare them for the role, which is fundamentally different, doesn’t help.

    I liked Mark Van Clieaf’s ideas about helicoptering high-capacity but lower capability people into several different silos over a couple of years, so that they see how the entire operation is done.

    Then again, since the biggest problem is that managers don’t fit, your comment is more relevant than mine. See my future post on how incompetence makes bosses bullying.

    On which produces which: the research created sad affect in workers and they did better in accuracy tasks. They created happiness and they did better in creative tasks. And vice-versa. You’re also right that there is probably a lot of feedback amplification going on — creative tasks induce more giddiness, accuracy tasks induce more clear-headedness. The starting point in the research was affective state, at least in those studies that I have read.

    You’ve gotten me wondering about how long you need Happy in creative tasks. There’s a point where you stop ideation and start the hard tasks of craftwork.

Tell Forrest how wrong he is: