Innovation by Ambivalence

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Maybe a love-hate relationship with your job can be a good thing. New research shows that emotionally ambivalent workers are more creative and innovative. The study doesn't sound that thorough. It would have made more sense to use a real work environment to expand the initial findings. But it matches my personal experience so I wouldn't be surprised if further research echoed these findings.

According to Fong, one implication of this research is that when people feel mixed emotions, they see this as a signal that they are in a situation that might contain lots of unusual associations, and thus will need to respond by using more creative thinking.

"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. 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."

I have a better explanation. I don't think people are aware of their mixed emotions and thus decide to use more creative thinking. I think that ambivalence just taps into a more basic, raw form of human intelligence.

Think about it. Life is really about embracing conflict and cognitive dissonance. It's the battle between seeking stability and novelty at the same time. It's the struggle of the short-term rewards we can get now vs. the long-term rewards we want later. It's spend vs. save. It's authenticity vs. mass appeal. It's a long term commitment vs. a one-night stand. It's emotional vs. rational. It's raw vs. refined.

I think the people that embrace the dualities of life are the people that see the world in a broader context and appreciate the multitude of conflicting desires and emotions that make up the human experience. Such a thought process helps you understand the different perspectives, the different ingredients that can make up a problem, and I think that gives you more resources to draw on for solutions.

  • Rob, how many people do you think embrace “conflict and cognitive dissonance?” I don’t know about the meaning of life but business seems to require one to avoid “conflict and cognitive dissonance.” link to the meaning of cognative dissonance http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/dissonance.htm

  • Hi Rob, I like where you’re going with this, and I think you’re right about the fact that when people are in conflict, they’re actively thinking of ways to resolve the conflict, which leads to more thinking and creativity in general. But what do you think is the relationship between an unusual working environment and cognitive dissonance? I get why hanging bicycles might inspire creativity, but am not seeing why this would invite mixed emotions in employees.

  • I think you’re exactly right, Rob. Few people spend life entirely happy or unhappy – at any given time you have plenty of reason to be either or both.

    I like your thought that embracing the duality gives you a wider perspective and drive.

    Patch Adams said this in his excellent book, Gesundheit:
    Change that is deeply effective and positive presents a paradoxical challenge. On the one hand, there needs to be an appreciation and acceptance of how things are in the here and now. On the other hand, there needs to be an active intention to make things better. Nothing needs to change, and everything can improve. This is the way to avoid the two extremist traps of activist’s frustration or pessimistic complacency.

    When you combine it with the recent post you pointed to about Teresa Amibile which concluded that people have rich emotional lives at work and we get a clearer picture of how we feel at work and how creativity happens.

    Thanks for another great link – your blog is a great source of inspiration to me.

  • I agree with Alexander kjerulf. He said, “Change that is deeply effective and positive presents a paradoxical challenge. On the one hand, there needs to be an appreciation and acceptance of how things are in the here and now. On the other hand, there needs to be an active intention to make things better. Nothing needs to change, and everything can improve. This is the way to avoid the two extremist traps of activist’s frustration or pessimistic complacency.”