Team-building? Science says pick some moody pessimists too

Imagine for a moment you’ve been tasked with putting together a team of co-workers for a new project. It’s an ambitious assignment that will require equal parts creativity and technical know-how. Besides all that, it’s a near guarantee that you and your team are going to run into more than one roadblock along the way that will necessitate some quick and flexible thinking.

Who would you choose to recruit from your office? The obvious answer is the brightest and most optimistic workers at your disposal. After all, who wants to work alongside a moody pessimist all day? Surprisingly, a new study is actually recommending just that. Researchers conclude that a team made up of both “glass half full” and “glass half empty” individuals is ideal for producing new, creative ideas.

Why pessimists are good teammates

Conducted as a joint international effort between Rice University, the University of Western Australia, the University of Queensland, and Bond University, this research is among the first to investigate how temperamental diversity influences team creativity and cohesion. The findings suggest that including both optimists and pessimists promotes a major creativity boost.

Like salt and pepper, or yin and yang, this concept isn’t new. Bringing together different elements or individuals to form a greater, somehow cohesive whole is a tale as old as time.

Bringing this back to science for a moment, the research team classified optimistic people as having “positive affect” while pessimists boast a more “negative affect.”

Generally, those with negative affect are more critical and persistent, which allows them to find and evaluate relevant information. In many cases, it’s the pessimists that find problems before they even occur. Meanwhile, people with positive affect are much more inclined to pursue all available knowledge, think broadly and freely, and come to unusual and creative conclusions.

“At any given point in time, some team members may experience positive affect such as joy and inspiration, whereas others may experience negative affects such as frustration and worry,” says study co-author Jing Zhou, the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “Instead of trying to homogenize team members’ affect, teams should embrace affective heterogeneity.”

Diversity is key

According to the findings, when a team experiences high levels of “affective heterogeneity,” or a diverse array of dispositions and perspectives, all of those dueling personalities can eventually tune in with each other. This phenomenon, called “dual tuning” by the research team, ultimately leads to more creativity.

A collection of 59 teams working on a semester-long project for an undergraduate management course at a Hong Kong University were tracked for this project. Each group was tasked with creating a business plan from scratch, which included designing a new product and making sure it was quite unique in comparison to market competitors.

Across all walks of life, not just the world of business or education, differences are often considered a weakness when forming a team. These findings indicate the exact opposite is true. As long as a team can ensure their differences don’t tear them apart, those varying perspectives are going to be an invaluable asset.

That last part is crucial: effective communication and collaboration are integral for any team but especially so for a team made up of different-minded individuals. Researchers refer to this as a team’s “transactive memory system,” which is just a fancy way of saying a shared knowledge pool. One team member can’t solve a given issue? No problem, someone else has something to offer.

“Our study suggests that teams may be aided in using their affective heterogeneity via interventions that focus on building the team’s transactive memory system, which can be accelerated when team members spend time together, share goals, receive information about member specializations, and train on the task together,” Prof. Zhou concludes.

On the whole, positivity is a better approach than pessimism. That being said, if you put together a team of people who all think alike, don’t expect any innovation or outside-the-box thinking. 

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.