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Criticism and creativity

Bosses have thicker skin than assumed, so companies can boost performance by encouraging negative feedback of superiors by staff, says study co-authored by Dr Yeun Joon Kim of Cambridge Judge Business School featured in new issue of Harvard Business Review.

Boss staves off criticism with an umbrella.
Yeun Joon Kim.
Dr Yeun Joon Kim

Most people shy away from criticising their boss because it’s seen as a risky challenge to authority. Yet a study led by a Cambridge Judge Business School academic suggests that firms should encourage such “bottom-up” negative feedback because superiors have thicker skin than commonly assumed – so such criticism can boost bosses’ creativity.

The research is featured in an article in the just-published March-April edition of Harvard Business Review (“A Subordinate’s Criticism Makes You More Creative”), through an interview with study lead author Yeun Joon Kim, University Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, supervisors “tend not to take negative feedback personally” but instead pay “heightened attention” to address the problems indicated in order to improve their behaviour, says the study.

The study suggests why superiors handle bottom-up criticism better than often assumed: “With the heightened level of social distance, high-power employees pay less attention to their social relationships with others; instead, they tend to strengthen their focus on the achievement of ultimate goals and maintain high levels of self-control in the process of goal pursuit.”

“Therefore, organisations should consider instituting formal processes that encourage followers to provide thoughtful, critical feedback to their superiors”, as this can boost the creativity of people receiving the negative comment, says the study, which is forthcoming in print in the Academy of Management Journal.

Yeun Joon Kim said: “We understand that workers are reluctant to criticise their bosses because it challenges people who have power over organisational resources. Yet our research suggests that companies should encourage this because superiors are more thick-skinned than people assume, and they tend to process the negative feedback into creative tasks that boost company performance.”

Whereas bottom-up criticism from followers to supervisors makes recipients focus on better task strategies that boost creativity (“task-processes”), top-down criticism from supervisors to followers and lateral criticism from peers to peers tend to create a psychological state of feeling threatened (“meta-processes”), thus stifling creativity, the research found.

A major implication of the paper is that it helps resolve inconsistent findings in the feedback literature. Past research over many years has produced perplexing empirical results in the relationship between negative feedback and recipient creativity: some studies found a positive relationship, while others found a non-significant or negative relationship. The new study breaks new ground in finding that failure to consider the direction of negative feedback might result in the inconsistency.

“By focusing on the direction of criticism, our research differentiates the ways people process such negative feedback and the effect this has on creativity,” says Yeun Joon Kim.

Based on these findings, the authors suggest that top-down criticism be limited in the middle of creative tasks in order to prevent a decrease in recipient creativity. In addition, organisations might implement “temporal” feedback that compares past and current performance of a single employee, instead of (more seemingly threatening) “social comparison” feedback in which performance between employees is compared. “Carefully crafted negative feedback that does not remind of competition between peers could enhance peers’ receptivity to lateral negative feedback,” the study says.

The research is based on two studies. Study 1 is a field study of 225 people working in creative jobs including product development and marketing at a health food company in Korea. Study 2 is a laboratory experiment involving 365 undergraduate students at a North American university that replicated the field research by assigning students the roles of subordinates, supervisors or peers, and having their creativity assessed after receiving negative feedback. The study – entitled “Does Negative Feedback Benefit (or Harm) Recipient Creativity? The Role of the Direction of Feedback Flow” – is co-authored by Yeun Joon Kim of Cambridge Judge Business School and Junha Kim of Ohio State University.

Find out more

Visit Dr Yeun Joon Kim’s faculty webpage