In most settings, criticism tends to dominate. For any idea or book or movie or what have you, the question that people discuss is what’s wrong with it, why it didn’t live up to expectations. Often, one gets the feeling that the criticism isn’t dispensed in an effort to engage with the work but as a demonstration of the critic’s smarts, the implicit argument being that he or she is sharper and more discerning than the work’s creator.
Managers in particular seem to have a hard time with this, said the Wharton professor Adam Grant, in a lecture at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Grant points to the work of his former student Justin M. Berg, who is now a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford. While at Wharton, Berg studied circus performers who were trying to make it into Cirque du Soleil. Berg asked the performers to submit videos of their work and then asked the artists themselves, circus managers, and regular audience members to evaluate them. He wanted to know, between the performers and the managers, who could predict which acts would most resonate with the audience members.
What Berg found is that the artists themselves were terrible judges of their own work. “On average,” Grant explained, “when they looked at 10 videos, they ranked their own video two spots too high.” The reason, he said, is that “they’ve fallen in love with their own work.”
The circus managers, however, also didn’t fare well, but failed in the opposite direction. “They are too negative on novel ideas,” Grant said, “and they commit a ton of false-negatives, rejecting really promising ideas.”
So why is this? Why do managers tend to find flaws, not reasons for praise? To answer that, Grant turns to the example of Seinfeld, which was rejected by executive after executive at NBC before Rick Ludwin, who didn’t work in sitcoms, to say, as Grant paraphrased it, “you know, I realize that this show makes no sense and it’s really about nothing, the plotlines never get resolved, and you can’t identify with any one of the characters. But it made me laugh and that’s what a sitcom is supposed to do.” The managers, by contrast, were too focused on whether Seinfeld looked like what had succeeded in the past to recognize its novel brilliance.