I’ll never forget the day my second grade teacher called me a “born writer”—the best possible compliment for a fledgling bookworm. I took her words to heart. Throughout school, I excelled in my English classes and won several writing competitions. So when I started college as an English major, I thought it would be easy—until I received a D on my first paper.
I had never received a D in any class, much less in English. Clearly, this professor was mean, stupid, or just in a really bad mood when she graded my paper. (Yes, I was a self-righteous little brat.)
No one did well on the assignment, so the professor said we could either accept the grade or come to her office hours, get feedback, and turn in a new draft. When I met with her, she spent nearly an hour providing specific feedback and asking questions that required me to think more deeply about my subject. As I left her office, my anger downgraded to frustration, and even that no longer felt justifiable.
My second draft wasn’t just better written; it had more depth, creativity, and original thought. I got an A -. Several assignments later, after more office meetings and feedback loops with this professor, I got my first A + in her class. That grade meant more to me than any accolade I’d ever received.
With my ego put in its rightful place, I realized two things:
Fourteen years later, I still have plenty to learn. Everyone does. So, I continue to seek out feedback and look for opportunities to work with talented writers and editors. They challenge me to improve, while adding fresh insights and ideas when I am too mired in my content to see how it could be stronger.
Creativity might start out as a solo act, but rarely do good ideas become great without an outside perspective. That’s why creative teams need feedback loops to keep their ideas and stories moving forward.
How can leaders create cultures where workers are not only receptive to feedback, but feel comfortable seeking it out? New management research might hold some answers.
While 58 percent of managers think they give enough feedback, 65 percent of workers still want more. Contrary to popular belief, workers don’t just want to hear the good stuff. They also want negative feedback, given in a constructive way. In fact, 57 percent prefer corrective feedback to praise, according to Harvard Business Review, and 72 percent think it’s more likely to improve their performance.
If feedback is so important, why aren’t managers giving more of it? Perhaps these managers don’t know how to give feedback, don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or think saying “Good job” is enough. That’s not useful feedback, because it’s not specific or actionable.
In creative fields, there are other concerns: When you’re paying people for their ideas, you don’t want to risk squelching any of that inspiration. It’s also harder to give feedback to creative workers who need input while their work is still in progress, and whose end products can be hard to objectively evaluate.
Boston College professor Spencer Harrison, author of a new study about feedback and creativity, explains:
Traditionally when we think about feedback, we think about the manager who knows what an employee’s performance should look like; they’re able to objectively measure how the employee is doing and kind of agree on how the performance has gone. But when you’re doing something that’s inherently creative, the whole point of creativity is you don’t know what the outcome is supposed to look like when you’re starting off. So now all of a sudden, both worker and feedback provider are in completely different positions than what a classic feedback situation entails.
So how do you give productive feedback on creative work? Harrison and coauthor, Elizabeth Rouse, set out to answer this question. For two years, they studied both a modern dance company and a team of designers from an award-winning research and development department. In the end, they discovered successful feedback hinges on “a creative person’s willingness to share incomplete work, the need for a constructive, two-way conversations, the desire of feedback providers to really understand the process, and the realization that the two parties are on a journey together.”
Simply put, feedback for creatives isn’t about judgement; it’s about adding insights that help move the project forward.
How can leaders build work environments where teams get the support system and sounding boards they need? Try these four tactics:
We’ve all been there. We started out with a great idea. Then our bosses and a dozen other people put their fingerprints on it. The end result was either watered down or bared no resemblance to the original idea. It’s discouraging, frustrating, and leads us to wonder, “Why should I work so hard next time if my work will just be torn apart anyway?”
Harrison and Rouse discourage this type of feedback. Instead of taking over a project, the better strategy is to help creative workers find their own answers. Harrison explains, “Feedback isn’t like, ‘You should do this.’ It [is] more open-ended, like ‘What would happen if we thought about this this way?’ This fine kind of analogical and metaphorical thinking, the curiosity questions, really spurred the conversations to move things along that way.”
When managers in the study did start spewing advice or throwing around the word “should,” their feedback never led to big changes in the end product.
Everyone’s creative process is different, and by jumping in at the wrong time, leaders risk interrupting—rather than inspiring—forward progress. Instead, Harrison suggests waiting until workers ask for input.
Just as importantly, leaders can create openings by attempting to understand what their teams are trying to accomplish. By asking which paths creative workers have already explored, and which they’re still considering, leaders make themselves credible feedback sources.
Harrison summarizes: “There is this really interesting dance that goes on between the feedback provider and the creative worker in trying to understand each other, to make sure they get to a point where the creative worker feels like the feedback providers have done their due diligence to understand where he/she is trying to go with the product and what he/she has already tried.”
We all like to hear nice things about our work, but we also want to keep improving—both our skills and our ideas. That will never happen if we’re surrounded by cheerleaders.
Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, says all ideas start out as “ugly babies.” They are “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete,” and they need to be protected. However, nurturing them through the formative stages requires honest feedback from people the creator trusts.
This concept is at the heart of Pixar’s creative philosophy: “You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback.”
Feedback from experienced, informed, and trustworthy leaders can be invaluable, but they aren’t the only ones with valuable input to share. Creative teams can also be excellent sounding boards for each other.
When Disney and Pixar merged in 2006, Catmull was already running Pixar’s animation studio. So, Robert Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, asked him to help revive the older company’s struggling animation department. The first problem Catmull noted was Disney’s feedback process for filmmakers, who would receive three sets of notes from different reviewers, often with conflicting instructions.
Catmull replaced this broken system with one that was already in place at Pixar—the “Creative Brain Trust,” a group of experienced filmmakers who know how to make good movies. When directors need assistance or input on a work in progress, they can assemble this group and get honest feedback from people who understand and respect what they’re trying to do. “This is followed by a lively two-hour give-and-take discussion, which is all about making the movie better,” says Catmull. “There’s no ego. Nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another. They know it’s far better to learn about problems from colleagues when there’s still time to fix them than from the audience after it’s too late.”
When it comes to feedback, creating an honest dialogue, not a one-way conversation, will help move stories forward.
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