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To keep the creative juices flowing, employees should be receptive to criticism from supervisors, peers and followers

February 11, 2019

New research shows that negative feedback can help or hinder creativity. It depends on where the criticism comes from.

Yuen Joon KimAttention managers: the next time you need to inspire your team creatively, be more attentive to your employees’ feelings when you deliver negative feedback. 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 new study led by PhD candidate Yeun Joon Kim.

Kim, who worked as a software engineer for Samsung before pursuing his graduate studies with the Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management area at Rotman, is familiar with having his creative work scrutinized — and at times, picked apart.

“When you’re working in a creative role in a competitive industry, the pressure is on to develop new and better ideas, faster,” says Kim. “While I was working in the industry, exchanging negative feedback was a pervasive practice. People tended to believe that they would improve the quality of a product if every aspect of it was criticized as it was being developed.”

Kim eventually transitioned to an academic career, and he now studies the social, organizational, and psychological processes that underlie effective employee, team and organizational creativity and leadership behaviours. His previous professional experience actually inspired the thinking for his latest paper, which has been conditionally accepted by the Academy of Management Journal.

“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,” says Kim, who will be starting an assistant professorship at the University of Cambridge later this year.

“To foster creativity at work, be receptive to criticism from supervisors, peers and followers.”

-Yeun Joon Kim, PhD Candidate

This is an issue that many other researchers are curious about, as well. The literature has been mixed when it comes to determining whether criticism inspires or inhibits creative thinking.

In this new investigation, Kim observed — through a field experiment and a lab experiment — and reported on how receiving negative feedback might impact the creativity of feedback recipients.

In the first study, he took a closer look at what happens in the workplace. He and his coauthor identified and assessed 225 creative professionals from a Korean organization, who had recently received negative feedback from a peer, follower or supervisor in their most recent quarterly reviews. Two months after these reviews were completed, the researchers evaluated how much creativity these employees were displaying in their jobs.

In the second study, Kim conducted a laboratory experiment involving approximately 250 undergraduate students enrolled at a North American university. He randomly assigned each participant a role: supervisor, follower or peer. Participants were then asked to generate a creative solution concerning an organizational issue. After one round of brainstorming, participants received either neutral or negative feedback on their solution, which they were told came from one of the three sources — a supervisor, a follower or a peer. Individuals were then asked to work on generating solutions for three more organizational issues. This time, their creative problem-solving ability was assessed by an independent set of judges.

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.

Some aspects of these findings seem intuitive, says Kim.

“It makes sense that employees might feel threatened by criticism from their managers,” says Kim. “Supervisors have a lot of influence in deciding promotions or pay raises. So negative feedback from a boss might trigger career anxieties.”

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 counterintuitive because we tend to believe we shouldn’t criticize the boss,” says Kim. “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.”

The key takeaways: bosses and coworkers 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,” says Kim. “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 behavior, not to aspects of the person.”

And, in general, be kind and attentive.

“Don’t criticize recklessly. Anyone who wants to offer negative feedback on the job should do so — discreetly and sensitively.”

During his PhD, Kim was supervised by Professor Chen-Bo Zhong.

Written by Rebecca Cheung | More Rotman Insights »

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Yeun Joon Kim

Ph.D. Candidate in Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management

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