Anxious teams don’t solve problems as well as happy ones, study suggests
  • leadership
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Anxious teams don’t solve problems as well as happy ones, study suggests

Philosophers, psychologists and self-help gurus have all drawn positive connections between anxiety and creativity. Harness your anxiety, they say, and you can transform it into a powerful creative engine.

The psychologist Rollo May goes so far as to say that human beings are anxious precisely because we’re creative. Here’s how he puts it: “Because it is possible to create — … in all the innumerable daily activities — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever.”

But a thought-provoking neuropsychological study casts doubt on the anxiety-creativity association. According to the study, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, happy individuals are actually better at solving word problems than those who are less happy. Conversely, anxiety affects problem-solving negatively — although not as much as happiness affects it positively.

These findings may be relevant to the way managers approach problem-solving within their department or team. But before examining applications, let’s look at the study.


Word puzzles
The researchers gave subjects a series of word problems and used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at their brain activity during the problem-solving session. The problems followed a single pattern: Three words were given and the problem-solver had to come up with a solution word that formed a compound word or phrase with each. For instance, tooth, potato, and heart would yield the solution word “sweet” — sweet tooth, sweet potato, and sweetheart. Or rat, back, and battery could be solved with “pack” — Rat Pack, backpack, and battery pack.

As a further wrinkle, the researchers asked the subjects whether they had solved the puzzles using “insight” — a sort of “aha moment” when they suddenly saw the solution — or rational analysis, where they tried a number of possible solutions before finding the right one.

When the results were in, they showed that the subjects who were in a happy mood — as measured by several personality and mood inventory questionnaires — did better at solving the problems, and did especially well at solving with insightful “aha moments.” The results also showed a similar pattern, in reverse, for subjects who were feeling anxious, although anxiety didn’t seem to hurt as much as happiness helped.

Brain activity
Why was this happening? Why did anxiety crimp problem-solving ability, and happiness augment it?

The fMRI scans of the study subjects seemed to show the answer had to do with activity in a brain region known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which lies behind the prefrontal cortex, the center of the brain’s so-called “executive function.”

The ACC works both on cognition and the regulation of emotion, and the researchers said that negative emotion — such as anxiety — appeared to divert some of its power away from cognition. At the same time, positive emotion freed the ACC up to do better cognitive work — i.e., solving the word problems.

Putting it into action
Assuming the researchers are onto something, what does it imply for managing groups of employees who are called upon to attack problems or carry out other creative tasks?

Well, you can’t order employees to get happy before they come into the conference room for that important brainstorming or problem-solving session. But you can create a light atmosphere conducive to happiness — a joke or even just a smile goes a long way — and you can definitely avoid making them anxious. Preferably don’t start by telling everybody how serious the consequences will be if the problem at hand is not solved. This may be true, but it’s not helpful.

Also, you may want to avoid making individuals anxious by putting them on the spot too much. Sure, ask questions, but don’t make anybody feel that everything depends on his or her contribution.

In a nutshell: If people’s brains are occupied with negative emotion, there won’t be as much room for their native smarts to strut their stuff.

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