Work Smarter//

3 Ways to Use Criticism to Boost Your Creativity

This is how you turn that negative into a positive.

omercam2/Shutterstock
omercam2/Shutterstock

Regardless of our profession, most of us are looking for ways we can improve our work. Whether that has to do with being more efficient, thorough, or broader in our thinking, feedback can be very useful in helping you pinpoint which areas you should focus on, and what you need to do to improve. But if we’re being totally honest, occasionally being on the receiving end of feedback — primarily when it’s negative, or poorly delivered — can be a challenge.

There is an unexpected upside to criticism, though, according to a new study in the Academy of Management Journal: It can promote creativity. The co-author of the paper, Yeun Joon Kim, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, used to work as a software engineer for Samsung — a position where he received a lot of feedback that inspired this research. Specifically, he wondered if receiving criticism at work improved his job performance.

In short, he found that negative feedback can both help and hinder the creative process, and much of that comes down to where the criticism comes from. If it’s coming from a boss or peer, for example, people tended to be less creative. But if the negative feedback came from another employee of a lower rank, it made the person more creative. When you’re in a position to be delivering feedback yourself, and want to ensure it’s well-received and productive, do so with compassionate directness. And if you’re the recipient of negative feedback (delivered with or without compassion), here are three easy ways to take that information and use it to fuel your creativity.

Make feedback into a two-way street

If someone tells you that you’re doing something that could be improved upon, use it as a chance to find new, better solutions and strategies. You know what doesn’t work, now you can focus on figuring out what does. For example, if a coworker gives you feedback on your new project, rather than taking it as a personal attack, take their criticism seriously and use it as an opportunity to get additional input from them on what they think could make it better. Chances are, the results will be stronger, and your colleague’s direction may prompt you to think of options you may not have otherwise considered.

And although it may initially be difficult, don’t shy away from giving your managers feedback on something they’re doing, or are in charge of on a larger scale. “It’s a bit counterintuitive because we tend to believe we shouldn’t criticize the boss,” Kim said in a statement. “In reality, most supervisors are willing to receive negative feedback and learn from it. It’s not that they enjoy criticism  — rather, they are in a natural power position and can cope with the discomfort of negative feedback better.” Don’t be afraid of giving your supervisors negative feedback. Delivered with compassionate directness, it can be profoundly useful. And if you’re a supervisor, take criticism seriously in order to pivot when necessary.

Seek out a colleague who challenges you

A little friendly competition is one thing, but having a co-worker you may otherwise clash with offer their thoughts on something can make you think of innovative ways to approach a project. “Creativity often arises from constructive conflict. Think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Each one critiquing the other’s work pushed them to ever greater levels of creativity,” Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., clinical professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business University of Michigan tells Thrive Global. “Those around us who only bring praise give us scant cause to develop our skills and improve our work.”

Learn new approaches

Part of getting feedback from a colleague involves being presented with ideas or solutions you may not have yet considered. The more diverse — in position, thought, background, etc. — your colleagues are, the broader the scope of the feedback you’ll receive. In fact, in a 2004 article in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Charlan J. Nemeth, Ph.D. and her co-authors discuss how having a diverse workplace means that all employees will be exposed to multiple perspectives, which in turn, results in higher quality, more creative solutions. Approach receiving negative feedback as a learning experience — not only on how to do your job better, but also to pick up new techniques you may not have been previously aware of.

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