One of the best ways to kill a worker’s creativity is to tell him his job is on the line.

Tahira Probst, an associate professor of psychology at Washington State University Vancouver, has explored that notion through a combination of laboratory experiments and field studies at businesses and schools in western Washington. She was able to prove that workers who believed their jobs were in jeopardy lacked cognitive flexibility.

Her study on job loss was published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology in 2007.

Workers whose jobs are in danger are less healthy and happy. That’s been common knowledge for years, says Probst. Countless studies have looked at job insecurity and its negative effects on employee health and morale. But businesses focused on the bottom line don’t really care about those results, she says.

Those same studies also show that workers under duress can be more productive. Businesses often cite a desire to make a company “a more lean, mean thing that’s more adaptable or flexible” as a reason for layoffs, says Probst. With that in mind, she wondered if the businesses aren’t really creating circumstances that do the opposite. With the help of colleagues at University of Puget Sound and Wright State University, Probst designed and implemented a set of surveys and studies to test her hypothesis that unhappy workers are less creative. “I wanted to look at something that was more directly relevant to the organizational bottom line,” she says.

Probst, 36, is one of the younger members of the experimental psychology faculty. She came to WSU in 1998 straight out of graduate school with a Ph.D. in industrial organization psychology. She found she enjoyed looking at attitudes and behaviors of people in the workplace. “It was all the interesting things about psychology, but it was also the applied nature of the work,” she says. Since joining WSU’s faculty, her studies have included job insecurity and underreporting of accidents, addressing psychosocial problems at work, workplace diversity, and matching management practices to the national culture. What she discovers can help businesses to change their own behaviors to get the desired results from their employees.

When designing this particular study, Probst noted that a large share of the American workforce has experienced layoffs in recent years. In 2000 and 2001, for example, 43 percent of U.S. organizations had layoffs. She also noted that little has been done to examine creativity, long-term productivity, or counterproductive workplace behaviors.

For her laboratory experiments, the psychologist tapped into the WSU student population. One hundred and four Vancouver students took part in a two-hour exercise in which they were hired as copy editors for a mock newspaper. They were given detailed explanations of the job, benefits, and compensation. Then they were given stories to edit and, to invest them in the job, were rewarded for good work with lottery tickets to win real money at the end of the day.

Half way through the experiment, some of the students received an urgent memo stating that 50 percent of them would be laid off. They were told that the decision would be based on performance and that those who were dismissed would have to return their lottery tickets and spend the rest of the experiment filling out paperwork. At this point, the group was given a problem-solving task, which they were told had no bearing on their jobs.

“It’s a classic creativity assessment called the ‘candle task,’” says Probst. The test was developed in 1945. Participants are given a box of tacks and a small lighted candle, which they are told to attach to the wall so that no wax drips on the floor. The solution is to affix the tack box to the wall and set the candle inside it. Those in the layoff group had greater difficulty completing the task, says Probst. In fact, 55 percent of them couldn’t find the solution. By contrast, only 35 percent of the control group members, none of whom were threatened with layoffs, failed to find the solution. That difference in performance was evidence that the layoff group had lost some cognitive flexibility.

For the field study, Probst focused on 144 employees from five organizations, including two schools and a dental clinic. She had no problem finding businesses where employees felt their jobs were at risk. “Job insecurity is so widespread, we really didn’t have to look,” she says. The elementary school, for example, had recently suffered severe budget cuts and had to reduce its workforce through early retirements and forced layoffs.

Probst was especially interested in workers in education and medicine, because these are jobs that require a high level of creativity. When a teacher tries to help students understand concepts, for example, she may have to come up with three or four different ways of explaining things, tailoring her explanations to meet different learning styles, says Probst.

One of the assessments was of the worker’s ability to see relationships between various ideas. An example was “Broken…Clear…Eye.” The correct answer is “Glass.” The workers who said they felt they were in danger of being laid off missed the answers more often. Probst’s study revealed that those who said they felt their jobs were most at risk also had the lowest scores on the creativity test.

“I hope that people look at it in the big picture,” says Probst. “Yes, [with lay offs] productivity goes up in the short term, but probably not in the long term. And pretty much every single other possible measure you can look at related to job insecurity is going to have a negative effect. Safety gets worse. Creativity gets worse. And ultimately product quality gets worse,” she says. “How could this possibly be good for an organization?”