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The Surprising Benefits Of Negative Moods

A few months ago, Adam Lashinsky wrote a fascinating article in Fortune describing life inside Apple.

The article begins with the following scene:

In the summer of 2008, when Apple launched the first version of its iPhone that worked on third-generation mobile networks, it also debuted MobileMe, an e-mail system that was supposed to provide the seamless synchronization features that corporate users love about their BlackBerry smartphones. MobileMe was a dud. Users complained about lost e-mails, and syncing was spotty at best. Though reviewers gushed over the new iPhone, they panned the MobileMe service.

Steve Jobs doesn’t tolerate duds. Shortly after the launch event, he summoned the MobileMe team, gathering them in the Town Hall auditorium in Building 4 of Apple’s campus, the venue the company uses for intimate product unveilings for journalists. According to a participant in the meeting, Jobs walked in, clad in his trademark black mock turtleneck and blue jeans, clasped his hands together, and asked a simple question:

“Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?”

For the next half-hour Jobs berated the group. “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation,” he told them. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.” The public humiliation particularly infuriated Jobs. Walt Mossberg, the influential Wall Street Journal gadget columnist, had panned MobileMe. “Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us,” Jobs said. On the spot, Jobs named a new executive to run the group.

Jonah Lehrer, wondered whether this anger was productive in a world that values consensus, teamwork, and avoiding confrontation.

At first glance, this cultivation of anger and criticism seems like a terrible idea. We assume that group collaboration requires niceties and affirmation, that we should always accentuate the positive. Just look at brainstorming, perhaps the most widely implemented creativity technique in the world. In the late 1940s, Alex Osborn, a founding partner of the advertising firm BBDO, outlined the virtues of brainstorming in a series of best-selling books. (He insisted that brainstorming could double the creative output of a group.) The most important principle, he said, was the total absence of criticism. According to Osborn, if people were worried about negative feedback, if they were concerned that their new ideas might get ridiculed by the group or the boss, then the brainstorming process would fail. “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud,” Osborn wrote in Your Creative Power.

But maybe this is a big mistake. Maybe Steve Jobs was on to something when he refused to hide away his disappointment or displeasure. That, at least, is the takeaway of a new paper by Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Their first experiment was straightforward, demonstrating that anger was better at promoting “unstructured thinking” on a creativity task, at least when compared to sadness or a neutral mood. The second experiment elicited anger directly in the subjects, before asking them to brainstorm on ways to improve the condition of the natural environment. Once again, people who felt angry generated more ideas. These ideas were also deemed more original, as they were thought of by less than 1 percent of the subjects.

Rest assured, anger is not a solution. “Although angry subjects initially generated more ideas,” Lehrer writes “their performance quickly declined. By the end of the idea generating session (in the study) they were performing at roughly the same level as everyone else.”

It does go to show you that, despite modern management's consensus building, there is more than one way to succeed.

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