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Being open to criticism at work can be beneficial to creativity

Researchers suggest the key is keeping an open mind

Photo (c) fizkes - Getty Images
Getting negative feedback at work can be hard to deal with for many consumers. To help fight those negative thoughts, researchers have explored the benefits of being more open to criticism.

According to researchers from the University of Toronto, receiving negative feedback at work can both help and hurt employees, but the most important thing is who delivers the critique: creativity can be sparked when employees receive criticism from someone of a lower rank.

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

Staying creative

Kim was inspired by his own experiences at work, and his team completed both a lab experiment and a field experiment to see how criticism at work affected later performance on creative tasks.

“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,” Kim said.

Both of his experiments yielded similar results: hearing criticism from a manager often prompted employees to get in their own heads and feel stunted creatively on their next projects, whereas hearing criticism from people who held lower positions spurred their creativity in future projects.

Kim explained that many employees feel that they’re in competition with their peers, and so hearing criticism from them can be just as detrimental as hearing it from a boss. However, the study also revealed that bosses are very receptive about hearing criticism from their employees, and doing so makes them more creative and productive.

According to Kim, bosses are “in a natural power position and can cope with the discomfort of negative feedback better.”

Moving forward, the researchers suggest that both bosses and employees be mindful when offering criticism, ensuring that comments are focused on work-related outcomes and are in no way personal.

“If you’re a supervisor, just be aware that your negative feedback can hurt your followers’ creativity,” said Kim. “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.”

Workplace wellbeing

Consumers spend a good portion of their time at work, and it can often be stressful. One recent study found that getting into arguments with coworkers can affect your sleep, while another found that co-workers should only offer each other advice when asked first.

However, to cultivate a more positive work environment, researchers found that expressing gratitude in the workplace can improve employee satisfaction and well-being by leading to better sleep and even fewer headaches.

“Employees that receive positive feedback are healthier, and that can impact the bottom line,” said researcher David Cadiz. “Preventing headaches and other stress-related symptoms means fewer sick days, and, in this case, cuts down the cost of replacement nurses and overtime pay.”

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