Let’s say you notice a dusty smudge on a co-worker’s jacket sleeve right before she’s about to walk into a meeting and make a presentation. Will you say something? If you’re like most people, you probably won’t. Why not? You may think your colleague will be offended and doesn’t want your feedback. So, you stay mum. Well, a new study out of Harvard Business School (HBS) suggests she’d rather you spoke up.
“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,” the lead author of the study, Nicole Abi-Esber, said in a press statement. “...[We] found that people consistently underestimate others’ desire for feedback, which can have harmful results for would-be feedback recipients.”
Previous research has shown that some people avoid giving feedback because they are afraid of embarrassing or upsetting the recipient, but the new study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looked at a different issue: Did people see feedback as able to improve an outcome when it was about something more important than dust on a sleeve or a piece of food between someone’s teeth?
When the feedback was the most consequential, participants were the least likely to offer it.
In one experiment, participants were offered 10 hypothetical awkward social situations at work where they could either give or receive constructive criticism. In another, participants were asked to remember a time when they were either given or received constructive feedback. In the last experiment, participants were paired with one another. One practiced a speech for a competition. The other was instructed to listen and then give their feedback.
Overwhelmingly, those with the opportunity to offer feedback underestimated the potential receivers’ desire to receive the information. When the feedback was the most consequential, participants were the least likely to offer it.
“Feedback is key to personal growth and improvement, and it can fix problems that are otherwise costly to the recipient.”
Since constructive feedback is a positive way to communicate and help others, what would encourage us to be more forthcoming? “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.” Abi-Esber explained in a statement.
Of course, how you give feedback matters, too. Keep your feedback constructive. It may help to think about how you would like the comments you want to convey to be delivered to you.