By Guihyun Park and Beng-Chong Lim
“I am bored!” “This piece of work is so boring.” Many of us at work are familiar with these sentiments expressed by colleagues at work. Indeed, some companies like Google Singapore and Zappos have gone out of their way to let their employees have fun at work. Benefits associated with fun at work include greater job satisfaction, engagement, and commitment. In some cases, it may even promote creativity and innovation.
While having fun at work may be beneficial to both companies and employees, a less frequently asked question is, “Is boredom at work really all that bad?”
While feeling bored is one of the most prevalent emotions experienced by many of us, it is not very well understood scientifically. We often mix up feeling bored with other emotions such as anger and frustration. While feeling bored may lead to frustration, boredom is a distinct, separate emotion experienced by many of us.
Our recent study tries to deepen the understanding of boredom and its effects on creative performance. Specifically, 101 participants were randomly assigned to two conditions. In the boredom condition, participants were asked to sort a bowl of green and red beans by colour for 30 minutes with only one hand while the participants in the control condition were asked to work on an art project using paper, beans, and glue.
Participants were then asked to take part in an idea-generation task, after which they were evaluated on the creativity of their ideas.
Researchers identified two important findings:
First, two independent assessors were asked to rate the uniqueness of the ideas generated by both groups based on a five-point scale ranging from one to five, with five being extremely unique. The assessors found that participants in the boredom condition came up with more creative ideas than those in the control condition on the idea-generation task. Boredom actually helped boost individual productivity on the task.
Additionally, boredom significantly increased creativity only in individuals with specific personality traits, including intellectual curiosity, high cognitive drive, openness to new experience and an inclination toward learning.
Our research suggests that boredom can be a cause of divergence-seeking, exploratory tendencies. We hypothesised the underlying mechanism at work here are these divergence seeking, exploratory tendencies linked to specific personality traits.
In other words, boredom, an unpleasant emotion, can actually push people to change and do something simulating that involves variety and novelty.
If managers and business leaders know how to harness bored employees’ desire for variety and novelty, the outcome may not be all negative for the organisation. Managers and organisations should be more nuanced in how they manage boredom in the work environment.
First, start thinking positively about boredom stop thinking that boredom is all bad and bored employees are not good for business or performance. This is not true.
Second, get to know your people. Everyone can get bored at work but not all individuals will benefit equally from being bored. As business leaders and managers, you need to know your people well to reap the benefits of bored employees. As mentioned earlier, only employees with specific personality traits will likely deliver better outcomes on challenging tasks when they feel bored.
Finally, be cognisant of the nature of the work process and how work is done. Being aware of the workflow allows you to identify the “moments of boredom” that may be experienced by your employees. Armed with this useful information, you can then aptly allocate the types of work to certain individuals to fully optimise team performance.
Although counterintuitive, having fun and being bored do not conflict. Both emotions can motivate employees to be more productive. It is really up to the business leaders and managers to harness these untapped resources for the benefit of the organisation.
This article has been written by Guihyun Park, a senior lecturer of management in the Research School of Management, Australian National University; and Beng-Chong Lim, an associate professor in Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University Singapore.
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