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Can Negative Feedback Help With Employee Creativity?

One may think that receiving negative feedback would improve an employee’s performance. Some research has confirmed this relationship. However, other studies have found conflicting results—that negative feedback either has no effect or hinders creativity.

Recent research in the Academy of Management Journal explored this relationship. The researchers hypothesized that a key factor in this relationship is the direction of feedback flow (i.e., supervisors to employees, employees to supervisors, or peers to peers). They examined responses to feedback across these three scenarios. The researchers also examined how participants responded to negative feedback—with “task processes” or “meta-processes.” Task processes are acts of work to improve based on feedback and meta-processes are psychological states where participants feel threatened by the feedback.

Two studies were conducted—a survey of 225 employees at a Korean health food company and an experiment of 365 U.S. college students in a simulated work scenario. The results revealed that when the flow was employees to supervisors, supervisors responded with task processes. In other words, they took steps to improve their creativity. However, when the feedback was from supervisors to employees and peers to peers, participants responded with meta-processes. In other words, they had a negative psychological response that prevented them from improving.

The researchers offered several explanations for these findings. Supervisors likely responded with task processes because they are not as concerned with social relationships with their staff. They use criticism as an opportunity to improve. However, employees who receive feedback from supervisors likely react with meta-processes which inhibit action because they are receiving criticism from someone who has power over them. Similarly, feedback amongst peers likely occurs because of competition amongst peers. They may feel as if they are undermined by their peers.

Kim, Y.J., & Kim, J. (2020). Does negative feedback benefit (or harm) recipient creativity? The role of the direction of feedback flow. Academy of Management Journal, 63(2), 584-612.