Behavioral Science

Does criticism help or hinder creativity in brainstorming? New research from the MIT Sloan School suggests that the answer depends on the nature of the group and its task


Findings have implications for how managers can spark innovation and team problem-solving

Cambridge, Mass., October 27, 2020—Criticism during brainstorming sessions can, in certain settings, stimulate creative thinking and enhance group problem-solving abilities, according to new research from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

The research, led by Jared R. Curhan, Gordon Kaufman Professor and Associate Professor of Work and Organization Studies, with Tatiana Labuzova, Ph.D. Candidate in Economic Sociology at MIT, and Aditi Mehta, former Ph.D. Candidate in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, now an Assistant Professor at University of Toronto, finds that in cooperative environments, criticism is likely to have a positive impact on creative brainstorming, whereas in competitive environments, criticism can have a damaging effect on creativity. The study is forthcoming in Organization Science.

For decades, experts have debated whether criticism is beneficial or detrimental for creativity in brainstorming. Some studies suggest that brainstorming works best when it is freewheeling and non-judgmental. If participants are concerned about criticism, they may censor themselves, which undermines the creative process. Other studies show that criticism can enhance creativity. Forcing participants to suspend judgment about the quality of ideas stifles free thinking.

“Our research helps to reconcile this long-standing debate,” says Prof. Curhan. “When it comes to running an effective brainstorming session, context matters. If the brainstorming environment is cooperative—meaning that group members’ goals are aligned—criticism is likely to stimulate creativity. If, however, the nature of the group or its task is competitive, criticism can trigger divisive intragroup conflict, and have a negative effect on creativity.”

In the main study, the researchers conducted a field experiment of 100 group brainstorming sessions with stakeholders in a controversial urban redevelopment project. Facilitators for the brainstorming sessions discouraged criticism for half of the group; for the other half, facilitators instructed participants to critique ideas as they were being generated.

Within those groups, half were told that all their ideas would be presented to the planning committee. (Those instructions cultivated a cooperative atmosphere.) The other half were told to select their group’s best ideas and that those ideas would be emphasized above all the others. (This created a competitive environment.)

The research team found that in the cooperative condition, instructions encouraging criticism yielded more ideas and more creative ideas. By contrast, in the competitive condition, encouraging criticism yielded fewer ideas and less creative ideas as evaluated by judges. The researchers replicated this finding in a lab study involving a brainstorming exercise for a union-management negotiation scenario, which allowed them to hold constant the nature of the criticism. Taken together, their findings suggest that the optimal context for creativity in brainstorming is a cooperative one in which criticism occurs but is interpreted constructively because the parties understand they are working toward the same objective.  

The findings have implications for how leaders spark creative thinking and problem-solving within their teams. Longstanding advice to prohibit criticism while brainstorming is still prudent in teams where members have competing goals, but when goals of team members are positively aligned, it may be more effective to encourage some criticism. Managers could also take steps to influence the cooperative nature of the group by framing the purpose of brainstorming around the interests of the whole group so that criticism can be construed positively.

“As a manager, you need to have your finger on the pulse of the relationships of the people on your team,” says Prof. Curhan. “Criticism is not inherently bad for brainstorming, but it can be detrimental if it happens under the wrong conditions.”

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