WASHINGTON — Most people always welcome nice compliments, but dread hearing criticism — or do they? A surprising study by a team with the American Psychological Association suggests people should actually be a bit more honest when it comes to constructive feedback. Scientists found that most individuals underestimate just how much others appreciate and desire constructive criticism that can potentially improve their performance.
So, the next time a loved one or co-worker is making a mistake or error right in front of you, don’t be afraid to speak up. While there is always a risk of offending others, this study indicates in most cases the other person will appreciate your honesty.
“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,” says lead study author Nicole Abi-Esber, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, in a media release. “Overall, our research found that people consistently underestimate others’ desire for feedback, which can have harmful results for would-be feedback recipients.”
Constructive feedback can be essential while learning a new skill or working on a performance. Prior studies have found that people usually want constructive feedback while learning and honing a new skill. Ironically, though, despite people wanting constructive feedback themselves, most will actively avoid giving it to others. For instance, an initial pilot study put together by this study’s authors found a mere 2.6 percent of participants told another tester about a visible smudge on his or her face (such as chocolate, lipstick, or red marker stains) while taking a survey.
Why do people usually avoid doling out feedback to others?
Earlier studies conclude that people hold their tongues over fear of confrontation, rudeness, and “negative outcomes.” This study’s authors, however, hypothesized another reason: In many cases, we don’t recognize just how much our feedback can help.
To test this theory, researchers conducted a series of five experiments featuring 1,984 people. During one experiment, participants viewed 10 hypothetical awkward social situations within a workplace setting. Within each scenario, the group could choose to either give or receive constructive feedback.
Another experiment involved asking participants to remember a specific real-life situation in which they could have either given or received constructive feedback. During the last experiment, researchers split the participants into pairs. One member in each pair had to practice giving a speech while their partner had to give feedback.
Remarkably, across all five of those experiments one finding remained constant: Participants underestimated just how much the other person wanted constructive feedback. In fact, the more important or consequential the feedback (“you really need to work on public speaking”), the more likely people were to believe the other person didn’t want to hear what they had to say. This observed gap was smaller for less important feedback, such as letting someone know they have a stain on their clothes.
‘Would I want others to be honest with me?’
Importantly, study authors did identify a simple way to stop this tendency. Ask yourself: “If the roles were reversed, would I want someone else to be honest with me?” Once feedback is framed in this way, it’s easy to understand why other people will ultimately appreciate constructive criticism, not hold it against the speaker.
“Even if you feel hesitant to give feedback, we recommend that you give it,” Abi-Esber explains. “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.”
“Feedback is key to personal growth and improvement, and it can fix problems that are otherwise costly to the recipient,” concludes study co-author Francesca Gino, PhD, also of 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.”
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.