Just Letting You Know … How We Underestimate People’s Desire for Constructive Feedback and What We Can Do About It 😉

If you were having a conversation with me and noticed I had a piece of spinach in my teeth, would you tell me? Be honest.

Unless you are a really good friend or one of my kids (who are always happy to point out rogue roughage) odds are you would not say a word. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that only a handful of participants — fewer than 3% — informed a tester if they had food or lipstick on their face. An overwhelming majority kept their mouths shut.

Source: Journal of Personal and Social Psychology

Why do we often fail to tell someone something specific and actionable that they could do to improve their performance or learning or appearance? Fear of embarrassing the other person or upsetting them makes us reluctant to speak up. Concern about our own popularity might also factor into the decision to stay mum. Another reason that we don’t say anything, according to the study, is because we underestimate the other person’s desire for feedback. Most of the time, people are grateful for input and advice. Failing to provide it deprives them of an opportunity to make a change.

“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,” said lead author Nicole Abi-Esber, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School. “Overall, our research found that people consistently undermine others’ desire for feedback, which can have harmful results for would-be feedback recipients.”

There may not be many consequences for having spinach in your teeth but there are scenarios where receiving commentary and critique can make a meaningful difference. Feedback is critical for learning and growth. Without it, it’s harder to get better. As Bill Gates observed, “we all need people who give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”

I vividly recall a professor in medical school telling me I needed to work on my presentation skills. He gave me specific pointers: “Stop saying ‘like,’ slow down, ask the audience questions, look up from your notes now and then, stand up straight, and recap your argument at the end.” I am forever grateful for this thoughtful advice and input. Whenever I give a talk today, his words of wisdom are in the back of my mind.

Closing the feedback gap

Given that most people desire and benefit from feedback, what can we do to help potential feedback givers overcome their doubts about giving it? According to the study, a perspective-taking strategy increased the likelihood of someone speaking up. Simply asking, “If you were this person, would you want feedback?” helped participants recognize the value of feedback to the other person and helped close the giver-receiver gap.

Bottom Line: Even if you are hesitant to give feedback, think again. As Abi-Esber advises, “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.”

P.S. If you see spinach in my teeth, please let me know.

If you’re still nervous about giving feedback, read this.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman