The Hidden Power of the Embarrassing Story

embarrassing story

By Yvonne Milosevic

Are you a fan of team brainstorming sessions? Many of us need to collaborate from time to time to come up with creative solutions at work. The trouble is, some research suggests that teams are less creative than individuals. If so, then this quirky suggestion from the Kellogg School of Management is the kick in the pants we need. According to a recent article in Kellogg Insight, you should start your next brainstorming session with an embarrassing story.

You would think that fear of embarrassment puts our creativity in the deep freeze. But research from Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, found the exact opposite to be true.

Don’t be so judgy

Thompson collaborated with Elizabeth Ruth Wilson of Harvard and Brian J. Lucas of Cornell for these studies on creativity and brainstorming. They discovered that when people shared an embarrassing story, it encouraged them to stop censoring themselves.

“When you have a brainstorming session, what you’re hoping is that people are putting out any idea, without regard to any judgment or evaluation,” Thompson explains.

The researchers tested their theory with an icebreaker experiment involving 93 managers in an ExEd program. First, they sorted participants into 3-person teams. They told half of the groups to share an embarrassing story from the past six months. Then, they instructed the other half to share a proud moment from the same time frame.

Afterward, the researchers asked both groups to come up with unusual uses for a cardboard box.

The results were clear: teams that shared embarrassing stories generated 26 percent more ideas than groups that shared stories of pride.

“One of the big findings in the creativity and innovation literature is that you want to have a lot of ideas to play with,” Thompson says. “If one group has nearly 30 percent more ideas than another group, there’s just a lot more fuel for the fire.”

The teams that shared embarrassing stories also generated a wider range of ideas, spanning 15 percent more categories.

Why does telling an embarrassing story work?

The researchers don’t know for sure why sharing embarrassing stories spurs creativity. But they do have two reasonable theories. First, sharing a cringy story about yourself makes people like you even more. Likeability creates more trust and better performance, they suspect.

Second, once you let down your guard to reveal something embarrassing, you’ll feel less self-conscious about your performance in the future.

Another benefit of the embarrassing-story exercise? It also captures people’s attention from the start, Thompson notes. “Automatically, people start listening and they’re more engaged,” she explains. “There’s an irresistible urge to let [the storyteller] finish, because the human story is never boring.”


We hope this post inspires you to kick off your next remote brainstorm session with an embarrassing icebreaker. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for ways to boost solo creativity, see why Finland may have the answers you seek.