New research suggests that business leaders might want to rein in their agreeableness when providing constructive feedback. The study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, provides evidence that warm and friendly leaders tend to provide less effective feedback to their team.
“I am interested in team effectiveness. Most of today’s work in organizations is performed by teams, yet high-performing teams is not the norm,” explained study author Jean-François Harvey, an associate professor at HEC Montréal and co-author of “Extreme Teaming.”
“Leadership is a key factor in determining if teams are going to be effective or not, and feedback is one of the main tools for leaders to influence team performance. Thus, I thought that we should consider personality characteristics of the leader and how those can affect the impact of their feedback on their team, starting with agreeableness — the highest-variance personality characteristic among the Big Five.”
“Agreeable individuals have the behavioral tendency to subordinate various self-centered emotions such as frustration or exasperation in favor of other-oriented, empathic expressions of support or prosocial behavior (i.e., empathy, forgiveness).”
Harvey and his research team conducted two studies to examine how agreeableness influenced feedback and team task performance.
In the first study, 182 adults were asked to provide actionable feedback to the writer of a cover letter and then completed a personality assessment. The researchers used text analysis software to identify the proportion of words in the feedback submissions that were associated with positive and negative emotions, and found that an individual’s level of agreeableness was associated the emotional tone of the feedback that they provided.
For their second study, the researchers collected data from 517 salespeople and 53 sales team leaders who were working for a financial services firm in Canada.
The team leaders provided information about how much constructive feedback they gave their team and completed a measure of agreeableness. The team members provided information about the team’s reflexivity, or the extent to which they reviewed their approaches their job and discussed the methods used “to get the job done.” The teams were also rated on their ability to come up with new ideas to improve performance, develop adequate plans for the implementation of new ideas, finding new ways of performing work tasks.
Team leaders who provided more constructive feedback tended to have team members who reported higher levels of reflexivity. Teams with greater reflexivity, in turn, tended to have greater performance. Importantly, the researchers found that the link between constructive feedback and increased team reflexivity was especially strong for teams with more disagreeable leaders.
“We show that agreeableness heightens the positive emotional tone that an individual uses when providing constructive feedback. Then, in a second study, we show that highly agreeable leaders’ constructive feedback is less impactful than lesser agreeable ones: the former’s feedback does not push their team to reflect on its work, which stimulates performance,” Harvey told PsyPost.
“In other words, tone can make the meaning of feedback ambiguous and the feedback-giver’s intentions can be hard to decipher. Thus, highly agreeable leaders may want to be mindful of their tendencies to use positive emotional tone when providing constructive feedback.”
“This does not mean to be disagreeable in general—there are pros to being agreeable such as invoking strong social ties and building high-quality relationships—but to be aware of the influence of the facet of one’s personality when providing constructive feedback,” Harvey explained.
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“We do not consider the team members’ attributes and we only tested our theory with sales teams,” Harvey said. “Some individuals may be particularly keen at picking up the cues from any type of feedback, and start a conversation that spurs reflexivity within their team. Moreover, future research should both examine leader agreeableness and feedback dynamics in other contexts.”
“Agreeableness has been shown to positively influence leadership effectiveness when effectiveness is defined by affective and relational dimensions, but not when it is defined in terms of execution and performance,” he added. “The study helps explain why that is.”
The study, “Constructive feedback: When leader agreeableness stifles team reflexivity“, was authored by Jean-François Harvey and Paul Green Jr.