There’s usually only one hard-and-fast rule for brainstorming sessions: Don’t be critical. So entrenched is the belief that negative feedback stifles creativity that at product- design firm IDEO, team facilitators have been known to ring a bell when a team member throws cold water on another person’s idea.
In negotiation and dispute resolution, the idea-generation stage is often treated as a feedback-free zone. But in a new study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholars Jared R. Curhan, Tatiana Labuzova, and Aditi Mehta find that brainstorming is not as fragile a process as we’ve been led to believe.
Does criticism hurt? It depends
The researchers began by studying actual community brainstorming sessions held by a university that was planning a redesign of its urban campus. Numerous controversial issues were at stake, including affordable graduate-student housing, commercial development, and gentrification.
For their own brainstorming sessions, the researchers recruited people who’d participated in public forums about the project. More than 400 people—local residents, people who worked near the university, as well as university students, staff, and alumni—were divided into about 100 small groups. Each group was asked to brainstorm ideas for the university’s project and was told their ideas would be shared with the project’s planners.
All the groups were encouraged to list as many ideas as possible.
Some groups also were told to “please be careful not to criticize anyone else’s ideas,” based on research showing that criticism might hurt the process. Other groups were told to “feel free to criticize each other’s ideas,” based on research contradicting the conventional wisdom on brainstorming and negative feedback.
In addition, some groups were encouraged to have a cooperative orientation by simply being asked to generate ideas; other groups were steered toward a competitive orientation by being told that
after they generated options, they would need to agree on one idea to highlight.
After the 20-minute brainstorming sessions, the groups’ ideas were counted and rated for their creativity. The results showed that in the cooperative condition, groups that were encouraged to criticize generated 16% more ideas than groups encouraged not to criticize, and experts in urban planning rated the cooperative groups’ ideas as 17% more creative. By contrast, in the competitive condition, groups that were encouraged to criticize generated 16% fewer ideas than those not encouraged to criticize, and the experts rated their ideas as 23% less creative.
Analyzing transcripts of the sessions, the researchers found that in groups steered toward competition, criticism increased conflict, which in turn squelched creativity. But in groups led to be cooperative, criticism wasn’t linked to conflict and actually boosted creativity.
Creativity and criticism in negotiation
In a subsequent laboratory study, participants read a description of a wage dispute between a union and management told from the union’s perspective. The two sides had conflicting beliefs about whether company profits would go up or down.
When negotiators have clashing forecasts, they can often create value by agreeing to a contingent contract in which they each bet on their beliefs. For example, the parties might agree that union
members would get a 9% raise in a year if profits go up but only a 3% raise if profits decline. If both parties stand by their beliefs, they should be willing to take the bet. Contingent contracts can enable efficient agreements, yet they are “non-obvious solutions that require creative, outside-the- box thinking,” according to Curhan, Labuzova, and Mehta.
In this second experiment, participants were asked to imagine that they were engaged in a brainstorming session with either another union member (the cooperative condition) or with a management representative (the competitive condition). Some were told that the other party had criticized their proposal; others were not. Next, participants were asked to brainstorm options for settling the dispute.
Participants in the cooperative condition were about twice as likely to propose a creative contingent contract when they had been criticized than when they had not been criticized. But those in the competitive condition were somewhat less likely to generate a contingent contract after being criticized.
Customize your brainstorming sessions
In both the field and lab experiments, criticism promoted more creative thinking in cooperative environments and hindered it in competitive ones. Participants seemed to construe criticism from competitors negatively, which triggered close- minded thinking. On the flip side, they construed criticism from collaborators positively, which led them to more open-minded, creative thinking.
Based on their findings, the researchers advise us to “customize brainstorming instructions to help groups reach their full creative potential.” If a negotiating team or its task is competitive by nature—as when parties hold opposing views about a project—you might expressly prohibit criticism during the idea-generation stage to prompt a creative mindset. In addition, you could promote greater cooperation— and creativity—by highlighting team members’ common interests and downplaying their differences. By contrast, when a group is focused on reaching a common goal, encouraging constructive criticism should lead to more creative ideas.