ZURICH, Switzerland — Criticism can be hard to accept at face value. Often times, when someone critiques us, we can’t help but take it personally or see these statements as an attack. Fascinating new research out of Switzerland, however, has uncovered a simple yet effective way to help make criticism a bit more palatable and persuasive.
Lauren Howe, an assistant professor from the Department of Business Administration at the University of Zurich, found that criticized groups are more likely to take a criticism to heart when the messenger not only criticizes the groups, but also shows genuine concern for the issues that the criticized groups are facing. These findings come from numerous experiments encompassing over 1,400 people.
We live in a world and society that is far from perfect. There’s no shortage of industries and areas that need improvement. Recent years have seen numerous groups in business and society speak out against various injustices; activists demanding justice for victims in their campaigns, employees calling attention to unfair practices at work, journalists putting a spotlight on societal harms, and business leaders speaking out on political topics.
While these critiquing efforts are well-intentioned, the researchers say many messengers will address their target by criticizing the group for causing harm to another group and imploring them to change their ways.
“What messengers may not realize is that when a person accuses a group of harm like this, right away, members of the group may believe that the messenger views their group as immoral and does not care about their outcomes,” Prof. Howe explains in a university release. “We find in our research that when messages include dual concern by expressing concern for the group that is criticized while still accusing the group of causing harm, it reduces this problematic inference, and thus dual concern messages are more effective at encouraging members of a group to agree with the criticism of their own group.”
For one of the experiments, liberals or conservatives in the United States agreed 6.6 percent more with a CEO who criticized their political group in a news article if the CEO also acknowledged that the political group was also dealing with harm such as being mocked and ignored by others. Participants were also 7.1 percent more willing to shop at a CEO’s company when they issued their criticism with care.
Study authors also tested the idea in campaigns, telling participants to read a poster advocating to stop prejudice against a group with whom they personally disagreed – whether it be liberals or conservatives, Christians or atheists, or the elderly or millennials. That poster ultimately led participants to agree 8.6 percent more strongly that their disfavored group deals with unfair and specific prejudices when the poster specifically conveyed that the advocates were also quite concerned about the prejudices that many other groups experience.
Another experiment reported 87.3 percent of liberals who said that conservatives are harming America still agreed that “conservatives, like anyone, deserve a voice, and their concerns should be heard. We should care for conservatives.”
Notably, though, conservatives estimated that only 40.8 percent of critical liberals would agree that conservatives are worthy of concern. Similarly, 83.9 percent of conservatives who were critical of liberals agreed that liberals deserve a voice and should be heard, but liberals estimated that only 35.3 percent of conservatives would express the same concern for liberals. Study authors explain this likely means that people in both political parties tend to underestimate the concern of their ideological opponents by about half.
All in all, Prof. Howe says these findings show that criticism is more effective and beneficial when it is delivered with care.
“When messengers point out harm or wrongdoing, they might consider: What challenges does the group that they are accusing of harm face?”
Messengers should consider acknowledging these challenges, if appropriate, to signal to audiences that they are not being dismissed as immoral. As more and more messengers raise their voices to criticize one group for harming another group in the service of social change, such arguments will be more persuasive if concern is emphasized for the criticized as well.
The study is published in the Journal of Business Ethics.
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