SAFE PLACES, COURAGEOUS PEOPLE: brilliant ideas flourish where it's ok to ask for feedback

A study by Vlerick Business School and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan throws fresh light on the steps employees can take that make them more creative at work, and more productive as a result.

Innovation is usually highly prized by employers. But how might employees selfregulate their own creative stimulus by seeking feedback? Might they be more inclined to share or try out new ideas if they know feedback will be forthcoming? And if that’s the case, what can employers do to create the conditions in which people are unafraid to brainstorm out loud?

The extent to which feedback-seeking enhances creative performance has until recently been something of an inexact science. Research conducted by Vlerick Business School and Ross School of Business explores how proactive feedback-seeking helps knowledge-workers to outperform against their own or their bosses’ expectations, enhancing their own creative performance through self-regulation. The research adds a brand new dimension to studies relating to workplace creativity, which have largely focused on strategies for managers to encourage greater creativity amongst their teams.

Be Honest with Me, All of You…

How does Frequency and Breadth of Feedback-seeking Impact on Creative Performance?

Employees tend to seek feedback by making direct inquiries to line managers or team members, or by looking out (monitoring) for giveaway signals in others’ behavior. The purpose of seeking feedback may vary – some employees use the information they collect to help stay in control of a particular situation, or to convince a colleague to take a certain course of action. Others may use feedback to better understand how they’re regarded by those who might influence a promotion or pay rise, or to help them conform to corporate culture.

Researchers wanted to identify a correlation between frequency of feedback-seeking and creative performance. Regular inquiry-generated feedback might prompt employees to take action to enhance creativity. Monitoring is a more covert tactic that, while risking misjudgment on the part of employees, conceals their desire to know what others think of them (frequent direct inquiries might expose weaknesses in mental agility or lack of industry knowledge). But if monitoring carries such a risk, how might the degree of risk depend on the employee’s powers of observation and ability to ‘read’ the signals that others send out?

Potential links between creative performance and the breadth of feedback-seeking warranted exploration. Many employees limit feedback-seeking to line managers or experienced colleagues. Yet peers, subordinates and people in other departments may have valid views, as might those employed at competitors or doing similar jobs for other organizations. Might feedback from more diverse sources generate greater creativity?

Personal Mindsets, Corporate Outlooks. How do Cognitive Style and Perceptions of Organizational Support Impact?

Researchers acknowledged two approaches to gathering, organizing and applying information, at either end of a spectrum of cognitive styles. Some employees are ‘adaptive’, viewing the world in black-and-white, with reference to objective, logical facts, figures and procedures. At the other extreme are ‘innovators’, who solve problems more intuitively, often with a more open mind, selecting the best elements from otherwise divergent schools of thought. Researchers conjectured that innovators seek feedback with greater frequency and breadth.

Perceptions of organizational support might also impact on feedback-seeking. Will employees who feel it’s safe to voice ideas more readily seek feedback? If they do, might they also be more inclined to self-reflect and engage in learning and development activities, or even bounce ideas off people outside the confines of their natural constituency?

So what’s New?

The Survey’s Results – and their Implications for Employers

Amongst the team’s findings, what stood out – and what has until now been largely unverified by research – is the extent to which employees can, and do, take actions to enhance their own creative performance at work:

  • Employees’ feedback inquiry is clearly related to creative performance – but monitoring for feedback has no statistically significant link
  • The more individuals exhibit innovative cognitive styles or perceive organizational support for creativity, the more frequently they seek feedback
  • Individuals benefit by seeking feedback from a broad range of sources; they’ll feel empowered to both identify and approach more of these sources in a culture where the only dangers associated with feedback are the potential consequences of not seeking wide feedback (such as earning a reputation as a ‘yes man’ or dullard; boredom from lack of variety or impetus; low visibility to senior managers or business leaders; career stagnation; and allowing colleagues or even employees of direct competitors to spot and fill gaps with their own great ideas)
  • Sources of feedback need not be restricted to colleagues – by building their own professional networks, employees can also become more creative by seeking external feedback (directly or through monitoring) from contacts in professional membership bodies and trade associations, or from people encountered at industry events and seminars
  • Relationships between cognitive style and perceived organizational support for creativity are mediated by breadth of feedback-seeking – but when supervisor ratings are taken out the equation, positive perceptions of organizational support and innovative cognitive styles enhance creative performance

Of course, recruiting only innovative people and providing an environment of relentless feedback-seeking won’t miraculously enhance workplace creativity. Managers need to encourage subordinates to develop the instincts and skills to seek feedback under their own steam, and as a matter of habit – but also to follow up on that feedback. But individuals themselves can learn to use feedback more advantageously. Even those who are adaptive (rather than innovative) might inquire for feedback to help them play to their strengths or deviate from accepted norms, rather than just measure their own corporate conformity.

The more ambiguous nature of feedback generated by monitoring may explain why there is less to link it to creative performance. But it might also be the case that some individuals who monitor for feedback don’t recognize valuable, creativity-stimulating viewpoints (or that greater conformity is actually their aim). Employees who managers or mentors agree have justifiable confidence in their own judgment may be more securely given freedom to be creative, counting on the observations and conclusions they make when monitoring feedback.

So employers can indeed develop safe places in which brilliant ideas can flourish. Embedding creativity in job descriptions, goal-setting, appraisals and reward schemes should stimulate feedback-seeking, while encouraging those who already self-regulate to seek feedback more often, and to build their own professional networks, diversifying potential feedback sources.

Whether the views of supervisors, peers and subordinates are sought spontaneously and informally, or through structured formalized procedures, encouraging employees to proactively seek feedback – instead of waiting patiently for others to be forthcoming – may well represent a winning strategy.

Where to Go from Here?

Avenues for Further Study

While this survey advances thinking about feedback-seeking and creative performance, options for more specific studies might include:

The impact of personal factors (such as effort, planning ability, emotional control and social competence)

  • Variations in creativity due to the level of detail sought (ie how far feedback drills down into specific aspects of performance)
  • How feedback-seeking influences employees’ willingness to produce or incorporate brand new ideas (as opposed to better ways of performing existing tasks or achieving existing objectives)
  • The relevance of feedback timing when creativity is an employee’s primary purpose (for instance: early feedback may be valuable when planning an advertising campaign; but if creative workers are used to last-minute, negative feedback from budget-holders – even after concepts have been approved – might they self-censor their most creative ideas?)
  • The impact of feedback on non-creative outcomes (such as conformity to perceptions of the ideal employee in succession planning), including how certain desired outcomes influence who employees select for feedback

Facts and Figures

Sample Size, Survey Methodology and Statistical Limitations

The study covered 456 supervisor-employee relationships within four organizations, examining how knowledge workers proactively seek feedback to enhance creative performance. Supervisors (overseeing teams of up to 11 people) and subordinates were asked different questions. Researchers defined certain parameters:

  • Cognitive style – employees typically more focused on originality than efficiency, and less likely to conform, were classified as more innovative than adaptive
  • Perceived organizational support for creativity – employees rated their employers for encouragement and acceptance of suggestions
  • Frequency of feedback-seeking – how often employees directly asked people, or monitored their behavior, for feedback
  • Breadth of feedback inquiry – how respondents spread feedback-seeking across different sources
  • Creative performance and controls – how supervisors rated employees’ on ability and willingness to solve problems creatively

Researchers acknowledge certain limitations. Some definitions or judgments might be subject to respondents’ generalities or personal bias, while restricting the sample to consulting firms mean that findings may be less applicable to other sectors. However, control variables and mechanisms were introduced to minimize inconsistent or spurious results.

Related article

Katleen De Stobbeleir, Susan J. Ashford, Dirk Buyens. 2010. Self-regulation of creativity at work: the role of feedback-seeking behavior in creative performance. Academy of Management Journal. 54 (4) : 811 - 831.

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