Grumpy workers are the best workers

Grumpy workers are the best workers

Monday, February 5, 2007


HOUSTON — The next time you go to work in a bad mood, don’t worry. It could be a sign you’re on the way to solving a problem.

Recent research shows it could be the grumpy workers who are actually a company’s most creative problem-solvers, said Jing Zhou, associate professor of management at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management at Rice University.

It’s the happy, cheerful folks who tend to think things are going well and that there are no problems to be solved, she said. They’re less likely to be pondering potential pitfalls and often don’t see problems until there is a crisis.

It’s a departure from the general management philosophy that a positive mood leads to creative problem-solving, said Zhou, who based her findings on the results of 161 responses from employees and their supervisors at a large oil-field services company.

The supervisors ranked the creativity of their workers and that ranking was compared to the workers’ self-assessment of their moods.

Traditionally, researchers have tested creativity by getting people to watch a short funny movie that puts them in a good mood, she said. Then they ask them to solve a problem like a puzzle.

The trouble with experiments like that is it isn’t really applicable to the workplace, she said. The research subjects don’t seek out their own problems to solve nor can they control how long they spend with the solution.

Focusing on how people process information, Zhou found in her research that those in periodic bad moods tend to be more detail-oriented and analytical. They’re also challenging the status quo.

And when someone is in a negative mood, they’re also motivated to get out of it.

Of course, Zhou’s not talking about someone who is sour all the time. "If you are like that, there is little anyone can do," she said.

But the occasional grump also needs a good leader who creates a culture that allows room for the employee to operate. Without one of those key qualities that encourages change, the employee just stays cranky.

A positive mood means getting along, said Bob Hogan, president of Hogan Assessment Systems in Tulsa, Okla. A contrary attitude, however, can lead to advancement.

That’s because an independent worker often has a willingness to take people on, said Hogan, who does personality testing for corporate clients.

A mood of contentment doesn’t fit with creativity, he said.

So what kind of employee does a company want to hire? It depends on the type of job, according to Hogan.

A company that runs a call center wants employees with good moods because they’re focused on acceptance and getting things implemented.

"They will get punished if they’re creative," he said.

But companies want "overcaffinated, energetic and agitated" employees for advertising, marketing and product development, he said.

Hogan said he follows his own advice when it comes to his own hiring.

When he’s looking for a customer service representative, he looks for the person who is "sweet and smiling."

A research position? "I don’t care about sweetness. It’s focus and intensity."

In an effort to hire the best employees, Steve Hines has learned to pay close attention to the emotion he sees during job interviews. And when he doesn’t see any, he gets worried.

"If you are happy all the time, it sends up a flag," said Hines, vice president of human resources for Armor Holdings, a defense and law enforcement manufacturing company.

People whose moods go up and down are living in the real world, Hines said.

They’re the ones who see both sides of things.

Hines said he tries to get at that range of emotion in job interviews by asking applicants to describe the best thing they’ve done in the past couple of years and the most disappointing thing.

He then searches for the excitement when applicants describe their big accomplishments and then search for the change in mood and demeanor when they describe their low points.

It’s not all that uncommon not to see the shift, he said, speculating that those applicants either don’t have the emotional range or won’t show it.

That range is especially important for the engineers and other technical and professional employees, said Hines, who has seen first-hand how bad moods can spark creativity.

"I don’t just want you to come and do a job," he said. "I want creativity."

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