Why it pays to be grumpy at work…

I should warn you that this post comes with some rather depressing statistics that may well dampen your sunny disposition. But, it may also increase your earnings and lengthen your life. Swings and roundabouts etc, etc…

It turns out we’ve been recruiting incorrectly all along.

Instead of welcoming in those (and possible having preference towards) potential recruits who enter the interview room with a wide smile and welcoming demeanor, we should in fact be looking for that rather gruff, down in the mouth and unimpressed individual who may, or may not, be simmering with latent anger…

OK, so perhaps I’m slightly over-egging the pudding for dramatic purposes, but after reading a recent article from the BBC ‘Why it pays to be grumpy and bad-tempered’ there is apparently some truth in why being or employing a miser could be the answer to a more prosperous career and life.

Yep, it turns out that the time is now to throw away your rose-tinted spectacles and instead adopt a glass half-empty outlook.

According to the BBC article, cranks may be superior negotiators, more discerning decision-makers and cut their risk of having a heart attack (although I’m unsure if ‘tendency towards anger’ yet features on a health insurance questionnaire). Cynics can also apparently expect more stable marriages, higher earnings and longer lives – though, of course, they’ll anticipate the opposite.

Happiness functions like a shorthand signal that we’re safe and it’s not necessary to pay too much attention to the environment,” says Joseph Forgas, who has been studying how emotions affect our behaviour for nearly four decades. Those in a continuous happy haze may miss important cues. Instead, they may be over-reliant on existing knowledge – leaving them prone to serious errors of judgement.

According to the article, we should all be applying “defensive pessimism” something that involves employing Murphy’s Law, the cosmic inevitability that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. By anticipating the worst, you can be prepared when it actually happens. Which reminds me some other great advice from a great book I read last year: Chris Hadfield’s “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life”. An overarching NASA philosophy is to “sweat the small stuff” – prepare for the worst and embrace the “power of negative thinking”.

To give you a better understanding, it works like this. Let’s say you’re giving a talk at work. All you have to do is think of the worst possible outcomes – tripping up on your way to the stage, losing the memory stick which contains your slides, computer difficulties, awkward questions (truly accomplished pessimists will be able to think of many, many more) – and hold them in your mind. Next you need to think of some solutions.

Only the paranoid survive, as they say.

When I considered the article after reading it, I could actually see some sense. For example, the article points out that anger as an emotion can actually bring out a hugely creative side to us; From Newton’s obsessive grudges to Beethoven’s tantrums – which sometimes came to blows – it seems as though visionary geniuses often come with extremely short tempers.

In a study by Matthijs Baas from the University of Amsterdam in 1999, Baas recruited a group of willing students and set to work making them angry in the name of science. Half the students were asked to recall something that had irritated them and write a short essay about it. “This made them a bit angrier, though they weren’t quite driven to full-blown fits of rage,” he says. The other half of the group were made to feel sad.

Next the two teams were pitched against each other in a game designed to test their creativity. They had 16 minutes to think of as many ways as possible to improve education at the psychology department. As Baas expected, the angry team produced more ideas – at least to begin with. Their contributions were also more original, repeated by less than 1% of the study’s participants. Crucially, angry volunteers were better at moments of haphazard innovation, or so-called “unstructured” thinking. In essence, creativity is down to how easily your mind is diverted from one thought path and onto another. In a situation requiring fight or flight, it’s easy to see how turning into a literal “mad genius” could be life-saving.

Interesting.

If you have a particularly difficult decision that requires top negotiating skills, it may actually be better to bypass your most diplomatic team member and instead send in your grumpiest recruit. A major flashpoint for aggression is the discovery that someone does not value your interests highly enough. It involves inflicting costs – the threat of physical violence – and withdrawing benefits – loyalty, friendship, or money – to help them see their mistake. Negotiating, yes? Although I would try to steer clear of the physical violence threat is at all possible.

Perhaps individually, being sometime angry or pessimistic might be ‘good’ for you, but I’m still not convinced if the same anger or ‘grumpiness’ is helpful in a team / work environment. Who wants to approach a renown hot head for advice or feedback? Would other members of the team feel intimidated and possibly make more mistakes due to being on the receiving end of a sharp tongue, or would they be more cautious and make fewer errors…?

And for those of you still grinning inanely at your screen, the article delivers this final blow, “good moods come with substantial risks – sapping your drive, dimming attention to detail and making you simultaneously gullible and selfish.”

Should great business leaders who come with a ‘caution, likely to explode’ stamp on their forehead be valued? Does the odd pessimist in the workplace make for a more balanced environment? Or are you happy, being happy and willing to take the risk that you may be just that little bit less likely to use skepticism and anger to make better creative business decisions?

Mark Gardiner
About the author: 

Mark Gardiner is the Managing Director at Charles Warwick Search & Selection, a multi-disciplinary search firm covering senior management to Board-level searches in the UK. Prior to his current role, Mark was a Director at Star Books in Leeds, UK. Follow him on Twitter.