Why you should be SAD at work

Why you should be SAD at work: This might sound provocative, but sadness can actually be beneficial in a modern workplace. Unfortunately, we are taught from a young age that sadness is a bad thing, and that we must always strive for happiness.  This “Cult of Happiness” starts when we are young children.  When you cried your tears were whipped away, and your parents, family, and friends would try and cheer you up.

When we enter the workforce, this “Cult of Happiness” doesn’t go away. It only intensifies. But instead of happiness, business leaders and HR are concerned about employee engagement levels.  And in many ways, this makes sense.  There is a ton of research that shows that engaged employees are more productive at work.

Even people like me, who write articles and blog about workforce issues cannot help but drive the narrative of employee engagement and happiness. By my count, I mention employee engagement in almost half of my articles, and my last article was just about being happier in your life.

But this constant need to help people ‘turn that frown upside down’ and shift every demotivated employee into a super producer is ignoring a key fact. There are actually some benefits for being sad, and by trying to constantly stop sadness, we are actually hindering our work.

Before we go on, I need to define one thing. When writing this article, I am referring to a mild and time limited form of sadness. Intensely long period of sadness can be a clinical depression. As a psychologist I do not believe there are benefits of being depressed, so please do not think I am suggesting you make your workers depressed or completely disengaged.

Benefit #1 – Sadness can improve your attention to details and your memory

Have you ever noticed that people in a good mood can sometimes be lost in their own little world?  They are just floating on a cloud of bliss.  But on the other hand, people in a sad mood can’t help but notice everything slightly flawed and wrong.  Well there are a few research studies that actually back up this observation.

In one study people were asked to remember details about a shop they had visited a few days prior.  People that visited the shop on a rainy and unpleasant day significantly remembered more details than people who had visited on a bright and sunny day.  Even though the shop was identical in both situations, the mood of the participant dramatically improved attention to details and later recollection of those details.

Even thinking about a sad even can improve your attention.  Another study had people either remember happy or sad moments from their past, and then they were then shown different photos.  In order to confuse the participants, the researchers would ask purposefully misleading questions about the photos.  But in the end, participants in a negative mood were better able to accurately remember the original photos and ignore the misleading information.  Not only were the happy people paying less attention, they also were more susceptible to misinformation.

This benefit of sadness could be applied to a few different settings in work.  Imagine you have to conduct an in-depth analysis, or that you need to review and edit an important document.  If you are in a happy mood you are more likely to miss some important details or mistakes.  But if you are a little sad, all of the little mistakes are glaringly obvious and they will stick in your memory longer.

I know I am going to think about this fact the next time I am running a training session.  Before a really critical skill, I might get them to reflect on a sad moment in their lives.  This way they might retain the key information of the training better.

Benefit #2 – We pay more attention to the thoughts and needs of others when we are sad

I don’t think it is a surprise to say that happy people have more positive interactions with other people.  They are more poised, assertive, smile more, and are perceived as more likeable than sad people.  I know I personally would prefer to be around happy people and not people in a sad mood. But just like how happy people can miss important details in a shop, they can also miss important details about how another person is feeling or thinking.

One research study put people into a happy or sad mood, and then had the participant go to a neighboring office to request a file from another professor (who was a secret collaborator of the study).  Happy people were more direct and less polite with their requests for the file.  While sad people were politer, more elaborate, and more likely to make a hedging request.  In a sense, the happy people just assumed the other professor would willingly give up the file, while the sad people looked for social cues on how the professor was feeling about the request.

In another experiment, happy and sad people were made to play a negotiation game where one participant made an offer to split a sum of money to another participant.  If the second participant accepted the offer, then they got the money, but if they rejected the offer, then neither person got the money.

The results showed that sad people were significantly more generous with their partner, and happier people were more selfish.  On the other side, sad people were more likely to reject an unfair offer from their partner.  Happy people would try and keep more money for themselves, but they would also accept an unfair offer because ‘some money is better than none’. Sad people thought more about the needs of the other person, and were more focused on the concept of fairness.

In a work setting, having a better understanding of the thoughts and needs of others is incredibly valuable.  Imagine a project where you are going to be introducing change into your organization.  Most people don’t like change, but often the leaders of the project love the change and assume everyone will love it as much as they do.  I think it would be better to put that project team into a sad mood to map out how the organization will feel about the change.  If they are too happy and gung-ho, then they are more likely to ignore key needs of their target audience and the change will falter.


Benefit #3 – You make better judgements when you are sad

Your mood’s impact on how you perceive social cues from others can also impact your ability to make decisions.  Since sad people are paying closer attention, they are more likely to make better judgements.  For example, one study showed the people in a sad mood were significantly more accurate in detecting deception and lies from other people. Happy people were less able to pick up the subtle clues that a person was either lying or telling the truth.

Another study looked at how our brains are biased to believe something is true if it is familiar to us.  Basically, the saying ‘repeat a lie long enough and it becomes the truth’ is actually how our brain works.  But not necessarily for people in a sad mood.  In an experiment, people were presented with a series of true and false statements, and then two weeks later were asked to remember which statements were true.  Two weeks later, only the sad people were able to correctly remember which statements were actually true.  Apparently, a happy mood tends to increase the likelihood that mistakenly remember false statements as true just because you heard it once.

A sad mood has also been shown to reduce many of the cognitive biases in our decision making.   The following biases are if you are in a sad mood:

  • Fundamental Attribution Error – Where you overate the importance of a person’s actions and ignore situational factors.
  • Halo Effect – Where you believe that a person with one positive feature (a nice smile) is likely to have other positive features (kindness or intelligence)
  • Recency Effect – Where you value data and experiences from the past month as more important than the past year.

Connecting this back to work, making decisions and sound judgements is something we do every day.  It should be a little disconcerting that a happy mood might put you in such a blissful state that you miss some critical information.  At the start of a strategy session or a board meeting, reflecting on all the amazing accomplishments that we need to be happy about might actually hurt the business.  Maybe it would be better to have everyone reflect on a time that made us sad.  Then we might be in the right mindset to make the right judgments.

Benefit #4 – Sadness can actually be a better motivator than happiness

Finally, sadness can actually be a better motivator than happiness.  Think about it.  A happy person wants to remain happy, and thus is more inclined to maintain the current status.  But sadness is actually like a little alarm in our brains.  We want to do something about it.  And so, sadness can motivate us into change and action while happiness might not.

One study that shows the impact of sadness on motivation focused on participants taking a difficult test with many difficult questions.  The test had no time limit, and the researchers wanted to see who would persevere more in the face of difficulty.  They found that people who had watched a sad movie before the test attempted more questions and got more answers correct when compared to people who had watched a happy movie.  The sad mood increased peoples’ perseverance levels, while people in a happy mood were quicker to give up.

Perseverance is actually one of the best predictors of job success.  People that have high perseverance levels are more likely to have higher performance ratings, achieve higher promotion levels, and accomplish more of their goals.  By having people think about a sad time, they are giving themselves a booster shot of perseverance.  When timed right, this could help turn a poor performer around, or help boost an OK performer into a great one.

How to make your people sad without being a horrible leader

I am not recommending that you go around the office trying to make everything feel like crap.  But I do think there is a place for sadness in your work.  In fact, I think some meetings would benefit from creating some artificial sadness.  A simple movie or a simple reflection on a moment you were previously sad was enough to generate the benefits of sadness.

That is why I recommend you bring these sadness reflections into some key meetings in your business.  I think your strategy sessions would be a great place to start.  I realize some of you might be worried about it killing the mood of the meeting, but as the research shows an overly positive mood might actually lead to poor meeting results.

I suggest you be open with your people.  Tell them up front that we are going to do a little reflection on sadness, because it has been proven to focus people on the details, make better judgements, and motivate action.  A sad mood isn’t permanent, and when done at the right time it can seriously improve your performance.  On the flip side, happiness can lead to a blissful state of ignorance, forgetfulness, and a desire to avoid change.

We don’t need to be crying our eyes out at our desk, but there is a bigger role for sadness in our work then most of us currently allow.  Hopefully you remember that before your next big meeting, or whenever you see a colleague feeling down.

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Cary Bailey–Findley has built High Performance Cultures within three Fortune 500 companies, and was awarded the ranking of #1 development organization in the world by the Association of Talent Development. He is currently the Talent Manager for SimCorp, but spends his free time helping startups scale up the the talent they need to succeed.

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