Angry Boss Can Bring Out Workers' Creativity
Angry boss.
Credit: Dreamstime.

An angry boss may be just the thing to incite innovation among employees. That's according to a Dutch study showing that some people perform better after receiving angry feedback on an assignment. Directed at the wrong person, however, anger can stifle creativity.

The key: the employee's degree of engagement and desire to understand a situation — a trait called epistemic motivation, which is linked to the worker's personality and the workplace environment.

In the study, subjects with high degrees of epistemic motivation generated more ideas, showed more originality and breadth, and became more engaged after they received angry feedback than after they received neutral feedback. Study participants with low epistemic motivation, meanwhile, showed the opposite response.

People with a high degree of epistemic motivation are "more likely to think about others' emotions in a rational way," said study researcher Gerben van Kleef, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam.  

They are more likely to interpret anger as a reflection of a below-par performance that needs improvement, rather than as an attack, Van Kleef told LiveScience.com.

A brick and a potato

To measure this trait, Van Kleef and his colleagues asked 63 undergraduate psychology students to rate the degree of their agreement with certain statements such as, "It upsets me to go into a situation without knowing what I can expect from it."

The students were then given eight minutes to generate as many ideas as possible on how to use a potato. They then listened to what they thought was live feedback from an evaluator discussing brainstorming — actually a videotape of an actor reading from a script. In one version of the video, the evaluator frowned and made angry gestures; in another, he sounded neutral.

The students' next task was to generate as many ways as possible to use a brick, and to stop when they ran out of ideas.

Among those with low epistemic motivation, every area was affected by the difference in feedback except for the range of ideas they generated.

In a previous study, published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2009, Van Kleef and other researchers found that teams with high epistemic motivation performed better when following an angry leader, while teams with low epistemic motivation performed better under a happy leader.

Not just personality

The findings have implications for the workplace, where anger can be an effective motivator, but only for certain people and under the right conditions, according to Van Kleef. The work environment can alter an employee's epistemic motivation, he said.

"It's unlikely to work when there is a lot of stress, pressing deadlines, or when there is a lot of noise in the background," he said. "But anger can work when people are in a relaxed environment, because then the anger will tell them they basically need to work harder."

The research is detailed in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.