Employees should be receptive to criticism to stay creative
Though most firms today embrace a culture of criticism when supervisors and peers dispense negative feedback, it can actually stunt the creative process. According to a recent study, to keep the creative juices flowing, employees should be receptive to criticism.
Yeun Joon Kim, co-author of the study, who worked as a software engineer for Samsung before pursuing his graduate studies, is familiar with having his creative work scrutinised – and at times, picked apart. His previous professional experience actually inspired the thinking for his latest paper.
“I personally hate hearing negative feedback – as most people do – and I wondered if it really improved my performance, particularly when it came to completing creative tasks,” said Kim.
The literature has been mixed when it comes to determining whether criticism inspires or inhibits creative thinking. The findings are published in the Academy of Management Journal. As part of the study observed – through a field experiment and a lab experiment – and reported on how receiving negative feedback might impact the creativity of feedback recipients. In both studies, Kim found that negative feedback can help or hinder creativity. What is most important is where the criticism comes from.
When creative professionals or participants received criticism from a boss or a peer, they tended to be less creative in their subsequent work. Interestingly, if an individual received negative feedback from an employee of lower rank, they became more creative.
“It makes sense that employees might feel threatened by criticism from their managers. Supervisors have a lot of influence in deciding promotions or pay raises. So negative feedback from a boss might trigger career anxieties,” Kim explained.
It also stands to reason that feedback from a co-worker might also be received as threatening. We often compete with our peers for the same promotions and opportunities.
When we feel that pressure from above or from our peers, we tend to fixate on the stressful aspects of it and end up being less creative in our future work, says Kim.
What Kim found most surprising was how criticism proved to be beneficial for supervisors when the negative feedback came from their followers (employees that they manage).
“It’s a bit counter-intuitive because we tend to believe we shouldn’t criticize the boss. In reality, most supervisors are willing to receive negative feedback and learn from it. It’s not that they enjoy criticism – rather, they are in a natural power position and can cope with the discomfort of negative feedback better,” said Kim.
The key takeaways, according to the researchers, is that bosses and co-workers need to be more careful when they offer negative feedback to someone they manage or to their peers. And feedback recipients need to worry less when it comes to receiving criticism, says Kim.
“The tough part of being a manager is pointing out a follower’s poor performance or weak points. But it’s a necessary part of the job. If you’re a supervisor, just be aware that your negative feedback can hurt your followers’ creativity. Followers tend to receive negative feedback personally. Therefore, keep your feedback specific to tasks. Explain how the point you’re discussing relates to only their task behaviour, not to aspects of the person,” Kim said.