Study: Employees can handle criticism if it comes from someone lower on the totem pole

There’s a reason that “Come see me in my office” is one of the scariest phrases there is: it always sounds like it means you’re going to get criticized or fired.

Indeed, managers should take care when giving negative feedback, even if it is constructive criticism, according to a new study co-authored by Yeun Joon Kim, a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, in a release. Done the wrong way, criticism can actually suppress creativity. But given by the right person, criticism can increase creativity.

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Kim’s past career as a software engineer and the type of negative feedback he received in that line of work inspired the idea for this study.

“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.

For the study, Kim and his co-author Junha Kim, a PhD student at Ohio State university, observed through a field experiment and a lab experiment on how getting negative feedback could affect the creativity of those receiving the criticism.

They found that criticism could both help or hurt creativity. The key was who the criticism came from.

It’s all about the person giving the feedback

When creative professionals or participants received criticism from a boss or a peer, they had a tendency to be hurt by that criticism, showing less creativity in what they produced next. However, if they received criticism from an employee who was lower on the totem pole than them, they became more creative.

“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.”

Also threatening could be criticism from a coworker, who we often compete against.

But criticism from a lower-ranking coworker, someone who we don’t feel threatened by, seems to make us just open enough to receive the message.

Managers, too, found criticism from their underlings to be useful.

“It’s not that [supervisors] enjoy criticism – rather, they are in a natural power position and can cope with the discomfort of negative feedback better,” says Kim.

Criticism is, of course, necessary. But it’s all in how you do it. Managers, says Kim, just need to be aware of how they sound.

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

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