People are hesitant to provide feedback to others because they systematically underestimate how much other people want to receive such feedback in the first place, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. The new findings shed light on why people often withhold feedback, even when it could be beneficial to their peers.
“We decided to conduct this research because we were really interested in better understanding the situation that so many of us have faced: where we look in the mirror and realize that we have a stain on our shirt, or we hear someone say a word and realize we’ve been mispronouncing it for a long time. The overwhelming question people have in these scenarios is: why didn’t anyone tell me?” explained study author Nicole Abi-Esber, a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.
The researchers first conducted a field study at a college campus to examine people’s propensity to give constructive feedback. Only 2.6% of participants informed a research assistant of a visible smudge on her face. The assistant even verbally asked the participants several questions before administering a survey to ensure that they looked at her face.
“Our pilot study definitely surprised us: we asked a research assistant to give out surveys in a busy campus center with a big, obvious, chocolate or lipstick mark on her face. Out of 212 people that agreed to take her survey, 155 people indicated they saw something on her face (which was one of the survey questions), but only 4 people actually told her about it!”
“This surprised us because we didn’t expect the number to be so low. I think we all like to think of ourselves as someone who would give someone feedback in this kind of situation, but our study showed that most people don’t.”
The researchers then conducted a series of five experiments involving 1,984 participants to measure how much people underestimate others’ desire for constructive feedback.
In Experiment 1, the researchers randomly assigned participants to imagine either giving or receiving feedback about 10 different workplace situations. For each situation, feedback givers reported how much they thought their colleague would want feedback and feedback receivers reported how much they would want feedback from their colleague.
The researchers found a significant gap between givers’ and receivers’ predicted desire for receiving feedback. Those who imagined giving feedback believed that their colleague would want less feedback than those who imagined receiving feedback actually reported wanting. In other words, participants underestimated others’ desire for feedback, particularly regarding more consequential situations, such as sounding rude in emails or making an error in a report.
“The gap was smaller with more everyday, less consequential, scenarios. For example, people correctly estimated how much someone else wanted feedback when they had food on their face, or a rip in their pants,” Abi-Esber noted.
Those who anticipated that providing feedback would make them feel discomfort and those who believed their feedback had little value were particularly likely to underestimate others’ desire for feedback.
In Experiment 2, the researchers randomly assigned participants to either recall an instance when they had the potential to give feedback or recall an instance when they had the potential to receive feedback. They then either predicted the other person’s desire for feedback or reported their own desire for feedback. Once again, participants reported wanting more feedback than they perceived others wanted.
For the third experiment, Abi-Esber and her team tested a real feedback situation by having people participate in a virtual laboratory experiment with a friend, roommate, or romantic partner. One participant was assigned to be the feedback-giver and the other to be the receiver. Both participants first predicted how they would feel giving or receiving feedback, and then the giver delivered feedback that they genuinely wanted to share.
“We demonstrated that even people who know each other quite well underestimate each others’ desire for feedback,” Abi-Esber said.
Experiment 4 investigated potential interventions that could potentially help reduce the underestimation of the desire for feedback. Participants were randomly assigned to either recall a time when they did something important incorrectly without realizing it or recall a time when they observed someone else experiencing this kind of situation.
“We asked people to recall times where they were either in this situation themselves, having made an error and not being corrected, or they observed someone inadvertently make an error without being corrected, and 561 people (out of 600) were able to spontaneously remember and describe such a scenario. So it definitely happens a lot!” Abi-Esber said.
Some of the participants were also asked to take the perspective of the person making the mistake before predicting that person’s desire for feedback. “It was really interesting that our simple perspective-taking intervention in Experiment 4 helped close the giver-receiver gap,” Abi-Esber told PsyPost. “Just asking people to quickly reflect: ‘if you were this person, would you want feedback’ helped them recognize the value of feedback to the other person, and helped close the giver-receiver gap.”
In Experiment 5, the researchers conducted a laboratory experiment involving feedback that was both real and consequential. Participants were paired, with one practicing a speech for a competition and the other assigned to listen and provide feedback. Participants were informed that the speeches would be scored and the person with the highest final speech score would be emailed an electronic Amazon gift card for $50. The feedback given to the speakers was also recorded and coded.
After receiving the instructions, the participants were asked “How much do you think the other person wants to get feedback from you?” or “How much do you want to get feedback from the other person?” The participants answered the same questions again after the practice speech but before feedback was given. “Interestingly, as the time to receive feedback approached, [the speakers] had more desire to get it, suggesting that they truly wanted the feedback,” the researchers noted.
In line with the previous experiments, however, participants underestimated their partners’ desire for feedback.
The findings also provided evidence that feedback can have important real-world outcomes. The researchers found that speakers who received more feedback from their partners tended to have a greater score improvement between their practice speech and their final speech.
“Even if you feel hesitant to give feedback, we recommend you give it: the person most likely wants it more than you think,” Abi-Esber told PsyPost .Secondly, if you’re still hesitant about giving feedback, take a second and imagine you were 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.”
The study, ““Just Letting You Know…” Underestimating Others’ Desire for Constructive Feedback“, was authored by Nicole Abi-Esber, Jennifer E. Abel, Juliana Schroeder, and Francesca Gino.