Embarrassment: The Key to More Creative Workshops?

Author: Michelle Russell       


New research shows that sharing embarrassing moments with coworkers can enhance your creativity.

Some time ago, I was next in line to board a shuttle bus at an event, with my colleagues right behind me. Blinded by the sun and distracted, I lost my footing going from the curb to the bus steps and landed splat on my behind in a puddle on the street. I didn’t really injure anything but my ego — compounded by the fact that I spent the evening reception with a very obvious stain on my backside. On the ride home in the shuttle bus that night, I conked my head on the overhead compartment while climbing into my seat. Again, in full view of same colleagues.

Why should I recall such a humiliating, clumsy experience? Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, says it would be a great way to kick off a company retreat or workshop that requires group creativity. After witnessing several company retreats where managers took turns talking about their accomplishments, Thompson, along with two colleagues, wondered how such bragging sessions might affect people’s creativity — and what the opposite kind of stories might generate.

In a recent Fast Company article, Thompson, author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, shared the results of two experiments she and her colleagues conducted to find out. “We asked people to share either an embarrassing or prideful story in individual and team settings and then participate in a creativity task,” she writes. “We found that both individuals and groups generated more ideas and a greater variety of novel ideas after sharing tales of embarrassment. Our findings, grounded in design-thinking, have practical implications for business.”

And practical implications for events, in which brainstorming workshops are often a compelling piece of the program.

Giving Employees the Time to Be Creative

It seems counterintuitive that we would work better as a group when we share humiliating rather than prideful moments. After all, most of us seek to avoid embarrassment, Thompson points out, “because it elicits feelings of incompetence, which might negatively impact self-image and performance.” But, research shows, it’s really the anticipation of embarrassment — like thinking that someone may publicly shoot down an idea you come up — that inhibits creativity, she writes. “So sharing an embarrassing story may actually counteract fears of future embarrassment by reminding us that we’re all human. Ultimately, this can enhance performance on creative and other tasks.”

On the other hand, while people seem drawn to others with confidence, “pride comes in multiple forms,” Thompson writes. The “authentic” kind is “I got the promotion because I worked hard,” which goes over better with people than “I got the promotion because I’m super-talented,” she writes. The latter is “associated with potentially off-putting narcissism.”

How It Worked

In Thompson’s study on individuals, more than 100 online participants were asked to write about a moment of pride or embarrassment they’d experienced in the last six months. Then, they were asked to list unusual uses for a paper clip. Those who recalled an embarrassing incident generated nearly 28 percent more ideas and a more than 20 percent greater variety of ideas than the individuals who crowed about a recent accomplishment.

The second study was conducted in a business-team setting, in which 93 managers in an executive education program shared real-life stories of embarrassment or pride as participants in randomly assigned three-person teams. Afterward, the teams were asked to generate unusual uses for a cardboard box.

Once again, the embarrassment groups scored higher in creativity, as measured by a 26 percent higher volume of ideas and 15 percent greater variety vs. the pride groups. As an added benefit, the shame-sharing groups seemed to have more fun.

Thompson said that for the embarrassing-incident sharing to lead to the greatest creativity, there are some easy steps to take. First, when people share their stories, it should be just that — a narrative with an actual beginning, middle, and end. “Much of the value is in the details,” Thompson writes. Second, the incidents recalled should be recent, so they are more immediate and relatable. And finally, there shouldn’t just be one person sharing an embarrassing story — at least one other person in the group should reciprocate to set the stage for a productive brainstorming session.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.