When you’re trying to be creative, the last thing you need is some sharp-tongued supervisor demeaning your efforts, right?
Actually, that may be just the thing you need.
Recently published research from South Korea finds a link between on-the-job creativity and a moderate level of “abusive supervision.” The paper, published in The Leadership Quarterly, finds innovation goes down when such sarcasm or scolding is taken to excess—or entirely absent.
Whether this says more about East Asian culture or human nature in general is an open question—a point the researchers, led by Soojin Lee of Seoul National University, acknowledge. Nevertheless, their study is a reminder that creativity can sometimes be stimulated in surprising ways.
The researchers found that "very low or very high abusive contexts hinder and discourage employee creativity, whereas individual employees are most creative when exposed to a moderate level of abusive supervision."
Lee and colleagues focused on “a large government-affiliated institute” that “provides various social security and labor welfare services and programs.” They matched surveys filled out by both employees and supervisors.
Employees rated their supervisors’ abusiveness (or lack thereof) with a 15-item questionnaire, responding to such statements as “My supervisor tells me my thoughts or feelings are stupid.” For their part, supervisors evaluated their employees’ penchant for innovation with a 13-item questionnaire, responding to such statements as “(The employee) comes up with creative solutions to problems.”
Analyzing the two sets of data, the researchers found that “very low or very high abusive contexts hinder and discourage employee creativity, whereas individual employees are most creative when exposed to a moderate level of abusive supervision.”
Afterward, they interviewed some of the employees, and found many agreed with the conclusion. In the words of one worker: “A certain degree of abusive supervision will give me a sense of crisis, and the negative mood from abusive supervision will make me uncomfortable. ... In that situation, I am better at finding new solutions to problems.”
The researchers note that Koreans, and other East Asians, are more likely than Westerners to accept the fact that institutional power is distributed unequally. This mindset creates “greater tolerance for unfair treatment from their supervisor or organization,” they write, adding that these findings “need to be addressed in other cultural contexts to test their generalizability.”
Indeed, it’s easy to imagine American workers responding to abusive bosses with insubordination rather than innovation. That said, a 2010 meta-analysis, which looked at the results of 76 separate studies, found “a curvilinear relationship between evaluative stress and creativity.”
It concluded that a certain amount of tension boosts creative performance, while too much hinders it. Assuming an abusive boss raises employees' stress levels, these results fit neatly into that pattern.
So, artists and writers: If you’re not making progress on a creative project, you might ask a friend to evaluate your work—and not hold back on the sarcasm. Or you can simply focus on the fact that, if the piece does eventually go before the public, it’ll be evaluated by a group of people who can make abusive bosses seem benign: Critics.