Feedback is crucial for learning and improving, but it’s rarely fun to be on the receiving end of it when it’s critical. In a study of seven companies and 11,471 days of creative work, researchers found two striking patterns: First, getting feedback was incredibly rare, indicating that people seemed to avoid it; and second, when people did receive feedback, it generally left a negative emotional residue.
So what might good feedback for creative work look like? By “good feedback,” I mean feedback that creative workers actually want and that leads to changes that improve their creative output.
Identifying this requires understanding how creativity works. Creativity is the generation of an idea that is both useful and novel. New ideas need direction that can build them up, rather than critiques that can tear them down.
At the same time, there’s a real need to understand how to give and receive feedback effectively in creative work.
Suffolk University’s Karyn Dossinger and I recently published research that gets at this question, focusing on a successful online company that crowdsources t-shirt designs from a large community of freelance designers. Looking across almost 2,000 feedback statements, we learned that two dynamics seem crucial: First, designers who were motivated to seek feedback out of curiosity, as opposed to simply improving their design, were able to attract more and higher quality feedback. Second, the peers providing critiques who recognized that feedback is a subjective opinion were more effective in enhancing the creativity of the final design. I’ll explain each below.
- Asking for feedback out of curiosity. How we ask for feedback influences the scope and type of feedback we receive.
Our research showed that highly curious individuals asked extremely open questions like “What do you think?” or “Where could I go next with this?” These designers received significantly more feedback than those asking narrow questions, and their final designs received higher scores. In this way, creative work is like dancing: Questions born out of curiosity signal that the creative worker is looking for a dance partner.
- Providing feedback based on subjectivity. If asking questions is like asking for a dance partner, then providing feedback is being the type of dance partner someone would actually want to dance with. When providing feedback to creative workers, signal that your opinion is exactly that: an opinion. Doing it requires providing feedback that includes first-person pronouns: I, me and my. “I see…” or “What strikes me is that…” or “My opinion is…” Many managers find this difficult, because they have been trained to solve concrete problems, not to consider what something really means. Asking for feedback out of curiosity and providing feedback based on subjectivity can improve both the process and the outcomes.
Spencer Harrison is an associate professor of organizational behavior at Insead.