This embarrassing hack could be the key to boosting creativity

A new study titled, Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, aims to geld our flush worthy tales of shame with sound empirical research.

After attending a slew of company retreats where CEO’s went on and on about all of their lavish accomplishments, authors, Leigh Thompson, Elizabeth Ruth Wilson and Brian Lucas noticed that this carried an adverse effect on staff ingenuity. Wilson writes, “Colleagues Elizabeth Ruth Wilson and Brian Lucas and I hypothesized that hearing about colleagues’ successes may be motivating, but it may also be intimidating enough to stifle creativity and, ultimately, performance.”

Sharing  tales of failure seemed to produce the exact opposite effect. The team set their hypothesis in motion with two considered experiments.

Blushing greatness

In the first leg of the study, the researchers asked 100 online participants to detail either a moment from the past six months that they were proud of or a moment from this window that brought them great shame. After deciding, the subjects took part in a creative exercise involving unusual uses for paper clips. The subjects that elected to tell an embarrassing story enjoyed 28% more ideas and 20% more diverse ideas than their prideful counterparts.

Wilson adds, “The embarrassment group performed better than a separate control group (who just wrote about their commute) on idea volume and variety, too, while the pride group’s performance was indistinguishable from the control’s. Moreover, authenticity in the pride group’s answers was correlated with a variety of ideas generated, whereas hubristic pride elements were not.”

The next study focused these impressions toward a business context, swapping the online participants for 93 managers of an executive education program. These were tasked with the same as the first. However afterward they were randomly assigned to three-person teams. Similarly, the teams that chose to share embarrassing stories evidenced a 26% higher volume of ideas than the other teams in addition to 15% more variety on balance.

The reason behind the successful replication of results regards the psychology of self-presentation. When a leader projects an impression of sublimity, their subordinates are burdened with the pressure to produce equally flawless work. So instead of taking the time to develop the unorthodox, employees cling to what they know will work for sure. Conversely, if an executive confesses imperfection, their team will think less meanly of the less beaten path i.e’Maybe this idea will crash and burn, but so what it happens.’ Execution also matters. Like Tyrion Lannister said to the rage of the entire world, there’s nothing more powerful than a good story.

Wilson concludes, “Evidence shows people remember and respond best to a narrative with an actual beginning, middle, and end. Much of the value is in the details, so stipulate that people provide them. The next time you experience something embarrassing, think of it as a potentially valuable story to share in the future, to boost your and your team’s creativity. Our research has your back.”