Why Most People Hold Off on Giving Constructive Feedback
Wouldn’t it be nicer if someone had pointed out to you that you consistently misspell “habit” as “habbit” — before you misspelled it yet again in your cover letter for your dream job? Or if someone would have alerted you of the red lipstick mark on your teeth, rather than you having to find out about it through the many pictures you posed for, smiling widely?
Feedback, when given constructively, can be useful. Yet, according to new research by the American Psychological Association, most people shy away from offering it. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study found through a series of five experiments involving 1,984 participants that most people misjudge others’ desire — or even need — for feedback, and therefore, withhold it.
“People often have opportunities to provide others with constructive feedback that could be immediately helpful, whether that’s letting someone know of a typo in their presentation before a client presentation, or telling a job candidate about a stained shirt before an interview,” said Nicole Abi-Esber, first author of the study and doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, in a press release, adding that it can have “harmful results for would-be feedback recipients.”
One of the reasons people tend to avoid offering people feedback, according to the researchers, is that they worry the recipient will feel embarrassed or take offense to it. Past reports state that people are also concerned their feedback may demotivate the person receiving it — especially since they are already working on difficult-to-meet deadlines or are caught up with personal issues.
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All of these are signs that the people withholding feedback care about the feelings of another — or, at the very least, about the bond they share with them. Another reason they may avoid giving feedback is that they worry about coming across as rude.
However, what they often overlook is that a good piece of advice may actually end up doing their friend, partner, or colleague a favor — by making them aware of something that might be askew. Feedback can also give them the opportunity to correct themselves in a safe space.
The research also revealed that people underestimate the worth of their feedback to the recipient; they then underplayed the notion that someone might actually want to receive feedback.
Interestingly, though, when the researchers asked people to imagine being in the shoes of another — by asking, “If you were this person, would you want feedback?” — they were immediately able to realize the value of giving feedback. “Take a second and imagine you’re in the other person’s shoes and ask yourself if you would want feedback if you were them. Most likely you would, and this realization can help empower you to give them feedback… Even if you feel hesitant to give feedback, we recommend that you give it,” Abi-Esber, notes.
Unfortunately, however, discussions on the subject note that barriers to sharing constructive feedback — especially within formal peer-to-peer, mentor-to-mentee, or manager-to-associate relationships — include the social and emotional bandwidth of the person from whom feedback is expected. An overworked manager, for instance, may not have the time or energy to explain to their junior where they’re going wrong. “I am not rewarded for it anyway… [and] it takes too much time,” one LinkedIn post notes.
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Nonetheless, the researchers of the present study noted that resistance to giving non-consequential feedback — like telling someone their zip is undone or that they have mayonnaise on their hair, as opposed to pointing out flaws in their presentation skills, for instance — was much lower.
So, while we may not always have the bandwidth to offer someone constructive feedback, it may be a good idea to not hold ourselves back for things that’ll probably not be followed by emotionally-draining discussions. And if we do care about someone, perhaps, giving them constructive feedback might be worth our time and energy, after all.
Having said that, no one can promise that the conservation certainly won’t be followed by an emotional reaction from the recipient. There are ways to hedge that: among other things, maybe by ensuring that we’re trying to be constructive through our feedback — rather than attempting to put them down — we can avoid a difficult follow-up interaction.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that “feedback is key to personal growth and improvement, and it can fix problems that are otherwise costly to the recipient,” says co-author Francesca Gino from Harvard Business School. “The next time you hear someone mispronounce a word, see a stain on their shirt or notice a typo on their slide, we urge you to point it out to them — they probably want feedback more than you think.”