The virtues of constructive criticism for creativity

Encouraging employees to criticize the work done by their peers stimulates creativity and refines the quality of their ideas. 

Every morning, a handful of animators and IT staff at Pixar studios meet in a project room to analyze the sequences created the day before. These peer review sessions are often tense and generate heated debates about fine details. But according to the company, these sessions are vital in order to stimulate employee creativity.

These sessions have been fine-tuned to avoid degenerating into a pointless brawl. Every negative comment has to be accompanied by a positive proposal to rectify the problem detected. Errors then become the first step on the road to improvement. This method, known as “plussing”, guarantees that criticism is always constructive.

Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at Berkeley University, wanted to compare the effectiveness of traditional brainstorming with a more critical method. He divided 265 students into groups of five and asked them to think about solutions to improve traffic flow in San Francisco. The teams had to follow different instructions. Some of them had to follow the strict rules of traditional brainstorming: allowing imaginations free rein without criticism; others were allowed to discuss and even criticize the ideas put forward. Result: critical discussions generated 25% more proposals! See also:

Healthy anger promotes creativity

A discussion of proposals put forward seems to force everyone to think about their colleagues’ work and to try and improve it. It can thus propagate the notion that everyone can make a mistake and facilitate the acceptance of criticism about their own work. Also, individuals taking part in criticism sessions feel invested in a mission to identify the shortcomings of others. They feel they are given more responsibility.

Furthermore, the anger generated in colleagues subject to criticism by their peers seems to promote creativity, at least in the short term, according to research conducted by the Dutch researchers Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu and Bernard Nijstad. They compared the performance of angry subjects with the performance of subjects whose mood was neutral when they were asked to come up with solutions to protect the environment. The former group proved more original, although their productivity in terms of ideas then rapidly declined.

Sources: Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


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Last modification 17.07.2018

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