Sonali stood up in front of a 1000-person audience, thinking she had won an all-company award—but it had been announced for a colleague with a similar-sounding name.
Greg, working from home, had a loud argument with his teenage daughter that everyone on his conference call inadvertently heard.
Claudia realized long after the C-level client meeting she’d led that her new blouse still had the “discount” price tag visibly attached.
These are the kinds of real-life embarrassing stories we’ve heard people recount in our research to understand which type of self-presentation–boasting or self-roasting–might provide the most fertile ground for generating creative ideas.
Our research question emerged in a surprising way. After observing several company retreats and offsites where managers took turns crowing about the great things they achieved—whether landing a big-fish client or completing a major initiative under budget—we couldn’t help but wonder how this affected people’s creativity.
Colleagues Elizabeth Ruth Wilson and Brian Lucas and I hypothesized that hearing about colleagues’ successes may be motivating, but it may also be intimidating enough to stifle creativity and, ultimately, performance.
To find out, we conducted two experiments. We asked people to share either an embarrassing or prideful story in individual and team settings and then participate in a creativity task. 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.
Which foot do you put forward?
How we present ourselves matters, and can measurably impact the success of our companies’ brainstorming sessions.
Self-presentation, as social psychologists refer to it, is about managing others’ impressions of us. Most people seek to avoid embarrassment because it elicits feelings of incompetence, which might negatively impact self-image and performance. But research shows it’s more likely the anticipation of embarrassment—like thinking a creative idea may be shot down publicly—that inhibits innovation. So sharing an embarrassing story may actually counteract fears of future embarrassment by reminding us we’re all human. Ultimately, this can enhance performance on creative and other tasks.
Pride, on the face of it, would seem to have the effect of increasing self-esteem and boosting social acceptance, as others may be drawn to confidence. But pride comes in multiple forms. The “authentic” variety (“I got the promotion because I worked hard”) is better-correlated with self-esteem. Its “hubristic” counterpart (“I got the promotion because I’m super-talented”) is associated with potentially off-putting narcissism.
The power of blushing
In our first study, we asked over 100 online participants to write about a moment of pride or embarrassment they’d experienced in the past six months. Afterward, they took part in a well-established creativity exercise: listing unusual uses for a paper clip.
We found that people who recounted an embarrassing incident generated almost 28% more ideas and over 20% greater variety of ideas than those who had written about a prideful moment. The embarrassment group performed better than a separate control group (who just wrote about their commute) on idea volume and variety, too, while the pride group’s performance was indistinguishable from the control’s. Moreover, authenticity in the pride group’s answers was correlated with a variety of ideas generated, whereas hubristic pride elements were not.
Our second study examined the link between embarrassing stories and innovation in a business-team setting. We asked 93 managers in an executive education program to share real-life stories of embarrassment or pride as members of randomly-assigned 3-person teams. Afterward, the teams completed a creativity task: generating unusual uses for a cardboard box.
Again, the embarrassment groups generated greater creativity: 26% higher volume of ideas and 15% greater variety, on average, than the pride groups. As a side note, the groups sharing blush-worthy stories also seemed to enjoy themselves the most, as their uproarious laughter suggested.
Overall, what we found reveals that people who share embarrassing stories versus prideful narratives demonstrate greater subsequent creativity, both as individuals and groups. Pride-driven stories—especially hubristic ones—appear less likely to enhance creativity.
Four ways to leverage your embarrassing stories
Our results suggest clear practical implications for people and teams that want to increase creativity.
Share embarrassing moments
The most obvious takeaway is that there’s a lot of value in encouraging people to share tales of embarrassment early on in offsites, team kickoffs, and other forums. It’s not just about being open to the idea of failure or self-deprecation, but being willing to share past foibles. This practice goes well beyond team-building to demonstrably boost creativity.
Tell the story
Stories are powerful things. Evidence shows people remember and respond best to a narrative with an actual beginning, middle, and end. Much of the value is in the details, so stipulate that people provide them. “My colleagues heard me yelling at my daughter” doesn’t qualify. This does: “Last month I was on this critical taskforce call for work, with our VP on the line. My daughter knocked on the door and asked to borrow the car, even though she was grounded. I thought I hit the mute button before talking to her but…”
Stay in the present
Any stories shared should be recent, ideally from the past six months—or even yesterday. That way they feel more immediate and relatable, and the recency makes it easier to remember key details, as emphasized above.
If a colleague offers up a foible or faux pas, respond by offering up one of your own. This way, the entire group can benefit.
The next time you experience something embarrassing, think of it as a potentially valuable story to share in the future, to boost your and your team’s creativity. Our research has your back.
Leigh Thompson is a professor at The Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration. Professor Thompson also explains how brainstorming can neutralize the loudmouths in this video.