Study: A Manager’s Criticism Can Spark Creativity

Posted By Terri Williams on February 6, 2017 at 8:30 am
Study: A Manager’s Criticism Can Spark Creativity

For most employees, nothing sucks worse than criticism – especially harsh criticism – from their managers. But what if it really doesn’t? A new study reveals that a manager’s harsh criticism can help foster creativity in employees.

Professor Modupe Akinola, an associate professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School and the author of the study, believes this concept applies to more than just manager/employee relationships. In the study, she writes that poverty and social rejection can also make people more imaginative.

However, Akinola warns that providing harsh criticism is not the same as being a tyrant and acknowledges that because people are different, the effectiveness of using criticism as a motivational tool may depend on the worker. Also, for such activities as brainstorming, she recommends a more positive approach to obtain the desired results.

Does criticism work for creativity?

Among millennial workers, feedback – whether good or bad – is vitally important. According to a recent survey, 32% of respondents stated they planned to quit in the next six months, and there was a high correlation between millennials who felt unfulfilled and those who stated they did not receive regular feedback from their manager.

Greg Harris, president and CEO of Quantum Workplace, believes that criticism is powerful and that the majority of workers want to receive immediate feedback even if the comments aren’t positive. In addition, he says they want feedback from their peers as well as their managers. “Critical, constructive, harsh – these are all different ways to say negative feedback, and while none of these have a positive connotation, it’s important to not get lost in the negativity surrounding the terms.”

The key to making this approach work is to make sure feedback is provided in the appropriate way, Harris explains.

Parameters for negative feedback

When criticism is constructive, it can be beneficial in creating an environment that fosters creativity, according to Richard V. Perrone, Ph.D., department chair, human services and psychology, and professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, FL. “Often, employee performance problems are mistakenly viewed as evidence of deficient employee knowledge or motivation, and that’s wrongheaded, as performance difficulties often owe to unclear expectations, resource limitations, or vague work precedent.”

However, Perrone says managers must commit to be transparent and direct when evaluating the performance issue. “This is not to say that mangers should demoralize and intimidate – as this approach offers no enduring employee improvement, and in fact, serves only to weaken performance and employee commitment.”

Instead, Perrone advises taking the approach of providing employee support. “The manger should first acknowledge what the employee is doing well or has the potential to do well and then move forward.” By detailing what the employee is doing right or potentially could do right, Perrone says there’s a starting place for improvements. “The employee develops a sense of empowerment to make their own course corrections.”

Because this method focuses on self-help, he says the employee doesn’t feel powerless and will be less anxious.

A recent survey on how millennials and Gen Z are shaping the workforce supports Perrone’s theory. Survey respondents thought the most important traits in a manager are communication, support, and transparency.

Disadvantages of harsh criticism

However, not everyone is in favor of the harsh-criticism-sparks-creativity approach. According to Neil Boyd, Ph.D, professor of management in the school of management at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, “I can imagine situations where criticism engenders action – and perhaps creativity – from the employee because they are responding via fear and are attempting to be productive to avoid negative consequences.”

But Boyd believes that this method can only be effective on a temporary basis. “In the long run, this is not a sustainable strategy for a manager, and over time, ruling by fear will lead to many negative outcomes for the employee and the organization.”

And he’s not the only person who is not in favor of this approach. According to John Sweeney, author of  The Innovative Mindset, and co-owner and executive producer of the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis, MN, “In my 20 years of helping people to innovate, I can say that there may be nothing more risky for humans to do than to share a new idea.” Sweeney believes that employees will be less likely to share their creative ideas if they expect to receive harsh critiques.

“I think there is a huge difference in what helps people be creative in a prescriptive task and what helps people to open their mind and live in a creative mindset.” Sweeney believes that using negative techniques may not produce the desired results. “It has been my experience that harsh critique drastically reduces the creativity and willingness to share in a work culture that has been given the task to innovatively solve complex and important questions.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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