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Empowerment in Organizations

The impact of emotion on creativity in organizations

Mary M. Lofy,
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Mary M. Lofy, (1998) "The impact of emotion on creativity in organizations", Empowerment in Organizations, Vol. 6 Issue: 1,
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Impact of emotion
The impact of emotion on on creativity
creativity in organizations in organizations

Mary M. Lofy
Lofy Associates, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA 5

In corporate workshops and organizational literature, a great deal of attention

is focused on how organizations can empower their members. James Kouzes
and Barry Posner (1993), for example, describe ways a restaurateur empowered
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his employees by giving them authority to make decisions about customer

satisfaction. The owner said of the employees, they are “better than most
because they have the power and the obligation to solve customer problems on
their own and on the spot. Giving them complete discretion about how they do
it has also given them pride”. (p. 154). Peter Senge (1990) quotes a CEO who
says, “I believe our fundamental challenge is tapping the intellectual capacity of
people at all levels, both as individuals and as groups. To truly engage everyone
– that’s the untapped potential in modern corporations” (350). Many
organization development professionals also link empowerment to increased
creativity (Senge, 1990; Wheatley, 1992; Weisbord, 1987). Pressures have
increased on business, education, all organizations to become “learning
organizations”. Unless one is empowered, or empowers oneself, it is difficult to
participate as a member of a learning organization. Senge notes that
people learn most rapidly when they have a genuine sense of responsibility
for their actions. Helplessness, the belief that we cannot influence the
circumstances under which we live, undermines the incentive to learn, as does
the belief that someone somewhere else dictates our actions. Conversely, if we
know our fate is in our own hands, our learning matters (287).
There is a perceived need to implement flexible, innovative practices in order
to compete successfully. There is also substantial research and writing which
deals with the impact of the organization on individual lives (Burrell, 1979;
Durkheim, 1933; Hochschild, 1983; Kreitzer, 1997; Lerner, 1986; Stirrat, 1995;
Weisbord, 1987).
An editorial comment noted that this journal’s “ultimate aim is to foster and
encourage the development of empowered organizations, acknowledging that
empowered organizations arise from empowered individuals” (Logan, 1996).
This article will focus on the individual. It will concentrate on how the
individual impacts an organization, rather than the other way around.
Specifically, I will discuss how a person’s emotional state influences the
organization. In my reading, I do not find much attention focused on whether
the emotional affect that individuals bring into their workplaces has an impact Empowerment in Organizations,
Vol. 6 No. 1, 1998, pp. 5-12.
on creativity in the system. © MCB University Press, 0265-671X
Empowerment in Arlie Hochschild, in The Managed Heart, notes that there is a “practice
Organizations among social scientists of ignoring emotion or subsuming it under other
6,1 categories” (Hochschild, 1983), and she objects to those “who believe that the
exquisite care they take to avoid discussing feeling, in order to focus ever more
intently and narrowly on cognition, increases the scientific character of their
work” (Hochschild, 1983).
6 In my experience, individuals can have a profound impact on workplace
climate. They impact other people within the system and I believe they
influence the system itself. They can influence not just the “mood” of a work
setting, but the amount of creativity employees are willing to engage in. The
emotional components employees bring to an organization take the system off
an organizational chart and out of theoretical concepts and give it meaning as it
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is lived. Mission and vision statements are important, as is organizational

structure, but most do not integrate or make allowances for the affective
dimension that is a central part of the system.
As an organizational consultant I observe that the affective milieu in which
people work has a substantial impact on creativity. In other words, when the
atmosphere in a work unit is one where people know emotionally as well as
cognitively that they are encouraged to be open, and to share their ideas, more
creative energy is present. People have permission to exchange innovative
ideas; they are emotionally free to engage in risk-taking. There is not a fear of
reprisals for stepping out to explore a different way of problem solving.
For example, in a corporation in which I consult, a director stated that if all
the energy people expended to talk and worry about what was happening could
be channeled creatively to address the company’s work, there would be no need
for the downsizing that had occurred. She said it, not in anger, but with some
sadness and a lot of frustration. In other words, though the system had
sophisticated mechanisms in place to deal with the downsizing, including
attention to the emotional impact on workers, the reality of the affective
reactions of people impacted the system in ways, and to a depth, not
anticipated. The company hired our firm because their employee surveys
indicated that trust was low, and they understood that it meant a direct impact
on risk-taking and innovation, essential ingredients to their corporate success.
In order to examine the question of the emotional influence of individuals on
creativity, I will profile two people who embody positive or negative emotional
characteristics that impacted their work situations. I will use my own
observations, corroborating those observations with scholarly sources. I will
incorporate comments from the employees’ colleagues and will use references
from the subjects themselves.
My focus will be on non-managerial employees. I do so because in the
everyday work arena peers seem to impact empowerment and creativity well or
poorly. It is not an area where formal attention is focused unless a situation
escalates into a crisis. Clearly managers have substantial impact on the level of
worker empowerment and creativity. I will not address that issue, since
attention is paid to it frequently in the literature (Hochschild, 1983; Kreitzer,
1997; Lerner, 1986; Stirrat, 1995). In addition, for purposes of the above Impact of emotion
question, managers are often equated with the organization, as though they and on creativity
the organization were one. Therefore, a look at how individuals influence a in organizations
system may be seen more clearly through non-managerial examples.
The people about whom I write are real people with whom I worked in client
organizations. Their names are fictitious. They are teachers in K-12 school
systems. The first person, Jane, was a positive emotional and creative force in 7
her school. The second, Dorothy, exerted extremely negative influences. These
women brought a particular point of view and emotional mindset to their
organizational interactions. They seemed to confirm what psychologist Michael
Lerner says, “In every specific human interaction the meaning of what is
happening is shaped by our understanding of the world that we live in, and
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what is to be expected in it” (Lerner, 1986). Each woman influenced her work
setting according to the expectations about life and people she brought with her.
The women seemed to personify very different approaches to a basic
philosophy of life. Jane displayed what Francis Fukuyama describes as a
Confucian orientation to behavior where the “basic image of man is one in
which individuals are embedded in a web of existing social relationships” and
in which “human beings have obligations to one another” (Fukuyama, 1995)
Dorothy acted out an extreme Hobbesian approach to life based on the notion
that “duties … are entirely derivative of rights and are undertaken only to
secure individual rights” (Fukuyama, 1995). She did so in a troubling manner.
The women shared some traits in common. They possessed a lot of personal
power. At some instinctive level, they understood the system and the
organizational traits of their workplace. The teacher who was positive knew
how to respond to and call out the best in the people around her. The negative
teacher wielded influence which tapped into the fears and insecurities of her

Jane cared. She was smart, creative, enthusiastic. She understood how to rally
others around her. Jane personified her colleagues’ “best selves”, and she
assumed others could do what she did. Jane provided warmth and respect; she
gave hope to her peers that they too could do wonderful things. She was
collaborative and generous. Jane was also powerful enough with her peers that
she was not condemned for stepping out to do creative work. She was unafraid
to show her enthusiasm. Her competence was apparent, and she did not seem to
have egoistic needs for attention. I suspect that trait helped her avoid the
derision of fellow employees for being innovative and enthusiastic. Often I see
attempts in organizations to squelch those who take risks, and “research
indicates that organizations are often punitive toward risk takers and
innovators”(Smith and Gemmill, 1991).
Jane was quietly centered, but animated when an issue mattered. She
articulated her positions well and clearly, was willing to take a strong position,
but didn’t dominate conversations. She laughed easily and smiled often. She
Empowerment in was credible. As I reflect on her qualities, it seems to me that her personal
Organizations integrity and trustworthiness were the sources of her power and influence. She
6,1 made creativity seem attractive.
The school in which Jane worked was full of conflict and discontent. Jane
was a veteran faculty member and she, along with many other long-time
teachers had come to the school under difficult circumstances. The school was
8 a consolidated entity formed several years earlier, in a time of downsizing and
retrenchment. A number of veteran staff carried anger, even rage, at the way
they were transferred. A relatively small group of these faculty wielded
substantial negative power in the building. Nothing anyone did seemed to make
a positive difference in their view of the situation. They seemed to mirror “the
set of beliefs and feelings about ourselves[that] leads us to feel that we will lose,
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that we will be isolated, that other people won’t listen, and that in turn leads us
to act in ways in which these very fears turn out to be true” (Lerner, 1986). They
were the antitheses of empowered employees.
Jane continued to have the respect of most of that group. It was a tribute to
her inner strength of character and her credibility with colleagues that she did
not succumb to the loud power of negativity, but remained an oasis of calm. She
empowered herself. She was encouraged in her endeavors by the principal. Jane
was a positive force for change, perhaps because things “can only be changed
by people who feel that they have the right and inner strength to demand a
different kind of world” (Lerner, 1986). She provided both a place for those who
sought a positive milieu, and she galvanized other teachers to creative
endeavors. She spearheaded an innovative, cross-disciplinary curriculum with
several colleagues. She understood that for the effort to succeed, “strong,
mutual relationships are necessary, especially in cases where high degrees of
boundary openness exist and where flexibility and novel responses are
required” (Smith and Gemmill, 1991). I talked with her about her collaborative
approach to the project. She had gathered ideas from students, then shared
those insights with other teachers from whom she had a commitment to move
forward. She found support from administrators and went with her co-workers
to other faculty to share the plan of action and invite their cooperation. She did
not shame other staff for not doing similar projects, nor did she ask their
permission. She informed them of the plan and presented her ideas in such a
way that she credited them with good will towards the project. I believe this
appeal to their better instincts and her place in the system enabled her to
succeed. She was imbedded in the system. She had walked the historically
difficult path with her colleagues. She was emotionally healthy, and she
operated from a principled, moral position. She wanted what was best for the
community. It motivated her participation in it. Because of these factors, Jane
maintained credibility and was able to impact the organization in a remarkably
positive manner, particularly given the negative atmosphere in the building. She
embodied what Peter Senge noted, quoting Robert Fritz, “The truly creative
person knows that all creating is achieved through working with constraints.
Without constraints there is no creativity” (Senge, 1990).
Dorothy Impact of emotion
Juxtaposed against Jane’s positive influence is Dorothy. She, too, was a teacher. on creativity
Her negativity seriously affected the work environment for her colleagues. in organizations
Dorothy seemed to experience emotional problems. I believe she suffered
deeply, and she carefully controlled herself in order to function. She appeared
protected, ready for battle, rigid, unyielding.
Dorothy exercised enormous power in her work group. She ruled by fear and 9
intimidation. Dorothy seemed to fit the profile Lerner saw in his research and
his therapy practice, “People blame others as a way to escape the too-intense
feelings of self-blame that they cannot handle” (Lerner, 1986). A substantial
majority of those in the school felt she made their lives miserable. She refused to
talk to some people. She accused others of incompetence or malfeasance
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towards her. It was as though Dorothy assumed ill-will on the part of others
towards her, whether there was any evidence to support it. She used a practice
involving what Arlie Hochschild calls “emotion memory”. Hochschild describes
engaging in emotion work to reenergize feelings of hatred or anger towards
someone by recalling past injuries. She says, “we also use deep acting, emotion
memory, and the sense of ‘as if this were true’ in the course of trying to feel what
we sense we ought to feel or want to feel” (Hochschild, 1983). Dorothy seemed
to use emotion work frequently to feed her anger or sense of unjust treatment.
She would recall long-ago instances of injury. She expressed anger at
circumstances that either never existed or had not existed for some time.
Dorothy talked about conspiracy on the part of some staff to persecute her.
Her reaction to colleagues’ interaction with her went beyond the “normal,
expectable hurts that people experience as they try to collaborate with others in
implementing an organization’s primary tasks within an uncertain
environment” (Smith and Gemmill, 1991). Dorothy neither collaborated with
others nor was she interested in the organization’s primary tasks. It appeared
that the system’s unifying principle of educating students was not operative for
her. She absented herself from meetings. She held her students in their
classroom rather than send them to the library where one of the faculty worked
whom she disliked. She did not make the good of the community part of her
consciousness. She defined the system and her interrelations with it according
to her desires, apparently without regard to the consequences on others. The
impact on creativity was marked. People were afraid of engaging her. They “hid
in their rooms”. They did not offer their good ideas, for fear of being ridiculed or
dismissed by her. Several talked about the substantial amount of energy it took
to deal with her, which left them with little or no time and energy to engage in
Many staff told of somatic symptoms – chronic headaches, stomach aches or
high blood pressure. One woman who had to work in proximity to Dorothy
stated, in tears, that she regularly experienced debilitating headaches. She was
not only afraid to confront Dorothy, she never disagreed with her. She said she
never gave suggestions to improve the classroom climate. In an article,
“Creating a healthy work environment in the midst of organizational change
Empowerment in and transition”, the authors point out that “a growing number of studies
Organizations demonstrate that people working in stressful, hostile, authoritarian, abusive,
6,1 and neglectful organizations are more likely to be absent, have stress-related
illnesses, experience depression, fear, loss of morale, and a decreased self
esteem” (Kreitzer, 1997). There was ample evidence that Dorothy’s power
created such a hostile work environment. A number of teachers said they would
10 transfer out of the building rather than stay in the same school as Dorothy. The
school atmosphere was described by outsiders and by the staff as depressed,
fearful, anxious and unhappy. In speaking with staff, everyone, including
Dorothy’s allies, stated the school could be a wonderful place, that staff were
caring and skilled, but the atmosphere was one where trust was non-existent
and fear reigned. A number of staff spoke confidentially of feeling powerless to
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counteract Dorothy’s influence. Because of their experience, I believe they

adopted an “internalized sense that everything has to remain the same, that the
way people treat each other and live together and work together is part of some
fundamental and unchangeable reality” (Lerner, 1986). They were
disempowered, not by management, but by a colleague. Many were strong,
independent, creative people who seemed unable to counteract her influence.
At the end of a school year, Dorothy left. The Fall following her departure,
staff described the school as fun, energized, and productive. The principal said
it felt as though a great cloud had lifted. The staff proceeded to implement
creative initiatives, including major renovation to the building. Their faith was
somewhat restored in themselves and in the larger school system of which they
were a part. They began to heal. They demonstrated that “people who trust
each other and are good at working with one another can adapt easily to new
conditions and create appropriate new organizational forms” (Fukuyama,
1995). Seeing the school before and after Dorothy’s presence confirmed for me
that individuals can and do have powerful emotional influences on
organizations. They can contribute to or diminish a sense of empowerment.

Jane and Dorothy, through the various emotional components they brought to
their work, influenced their colleagues and the system. Whatever their talents,
skills or intelligence, it was the force of their emotional character that most
defined their influence, especially on creativity. Their supervisors and
coworkers described them in terms of emotional qualities. Jane “is the most
caring person I work with. I feel good just being around her.” And, “Jane gives
me new ideas and the courage to try them.” Dorothy is “scary; I’m so afraid of
her I walk down a different hall when she approaches.” “I get paralyzed when
she is around.”
My observation is that the emotional characteristics of a system are the ones
that are mentioned most often in terms of job satisfaction, as evidenced by the
above comments. The systems in which we live and work need our moral and
emotional commitment to be successful. Organizational plans, state of the art
facilities and sophisticated intellectual constructs are important ingredients,
but if a system ignores the emotional life of those in it, creativity languishes and Impact of emotion
the organization does not function as well as it might. Fukuyama, discussing on creativity
sociologist James Coleman’s ideas, says that “people’s ability to associate with in organizations
each other is critical not only to economic life but to virtually every other aspect
of social existence as well” (Fukuyama, 1995). The ability to associate well
includes the ability to interact emotionally. Jane was able to do so. Her emotional
commitment to her community enabled her to tolerate angry, skeptical, tired, 11
confused colleagues. More than that, she was able to encourage their creative
ideas. It was not the knowledge she had about effective teaching methods alone
that made a difference to the system in which she worked. It was her willingness
to engage emotionally, to take the risks necessary to be creative. She served as
an example of an empowered employee and encouraged others to be
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empowered as well.
Most members of an organization do not fit neatly into the extreme examples
described above. A majority of people combine positive and negative emotional
qualities, bringing to the organization a mixed record of influence. Their
contributions to creativity, or its repression, may vary. They occur on a
continuum. Many people resemble Pam, another teacher. Pam liked teaching
and students. She was a good person, who cared. She worked hard. But Pam
seemed always to carry too full a load, juggling responsibilities and holding at
bay frenzy or despair. I watched her attempt to tell herself and others that she
was fine. She worked hard to “manage feeling” in order “to actively try to
change a preexisting emotional state” (Hochschild, 1983).
Her commitment to worthy causes and her good will were positive forces. In
those instances, she was able to encourage herself and her colleagues to tackle
creative educational projects. On the other hand, her harried existence and
experience of being overwhelmed made her impatient and combative. She
adopted the attitude of those who criticized innovative approaches to issues,
saying, “We tried that before and it didn’t work”. Her impact on creativity
depended on her varied emotional states.
In conclusion, the emotional components an individual brings to a system
can influence the system substantially. To ignore the impact that emotions have
on creative energy is to miss an important point. Human systems are not
abstract structures. They are charged with emotion. If emotions have healthy
avenues for expression, they elicit and promote creative energy. If emotions are
repressed or negativity is encouraged, people in the organization will retreat
from creativity. They will fail to be empowered and the organization will be
robbed of their best contributions.

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