- People really do want to receive constructive criticism at work, research shows.
- However, many people don’t think others want to hear it and overestimate the discomfort it will cause the other person.
- Receiving more constructive feedback is associated with greater improvements in performance.
Picture this: You’ve just finished an important presentation at work in front of your boss and coworkers. You worked hard on it and you think that the presentation went flawlessly. But then you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and realize there’s a coffee stain on the front of your shirt.
Why didn’t your coworkers or boss say anything? That’s what Nicole Abi-Esber wanted to find out.
According to her research team’s study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, people want constructive feedback, but, curiously, they underestimate just how much other people want it, too.
Constructive feedback is when you tell someone a specific change they could make that would improve their well-being. Receiving this kind of criticism can help us get better at our jobs, our relationships, and pretty much everything else in life that requires learned skills.
Unfortunately, one perceived problem with giving others constructive criticism is that it can come with negative feelings — like embarrassment, shame, anger, and other emotions that can bubble up when someone points out that you made a mistake. According to this study, people are acutely aware of this pain, and it can hold them back from speaking up, even if it might benefit the criticism receiver.
As part of the study, researchers did five experiments with hypothetical scenarios. In each, the participants had to choose whether to give constructive criticism to someone else in a real-life setting.
The feedback situations ranged from less to more consequential, including deciding whether to tell someone they had a lipstick mark on their face, were mispronouncing a word, or had made mistakes during public speaking.
Staggeringly few people gave feedback
For example, in one part of the study, participants received a questionnaire from a researcher who had either a marker smudge, a chocolate smudge, or a lipstick smudge on her face.
The researchers found that the vast majority of participants in each study chose to remain silent rather than tell the researcher about the smudge. In the example above, only 4 out of 155 participants who said they noticed the smudge actually told the researcher about it.
When the feedback was more consequential, such as telling someone they need to improve their public speaking skills, participants tended to underestimate how much the other person wanted their feedback even more.
Constructive criticism is associated with improved performance
When people tell us what’s wrong, we tend to fix the problem and improve — and that’s very beneficial for performance at work and in life.
This study found that people who received more constructive criticism on their public speaking performance tended to have greater improvements in performance.
If constructive feedback is linked with improved performance, then why are many of us so hesitant to give feedback that could potentially improve others’ careers and lives?
“It’s really hard for people to take the perspective of others,” explains Abi-Esber, who is a doctoral student in Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School.
“We’re stuck thinking about ourselves and how potentially uncomfortable it would be to give feedback, and it’s harder for us to get out of our own head and appreciate the extent to which others would value getting feedback.”
Put yourself in their shoes
Giving feedback to another person can feel awkward. You may feel like it’s none of your business or that it’s not worth hurting the person’s feelings by telling them what they did wrong.
So when is it OK to tell a coworker that they have something in their teeth, or that they’re mispronouncing a fellow worker’s name?
Abi-Esber said the easiest way to know is to imagine how you’d feel if you were them. Consider the potential benefits they might get from hearing your perspective.
“If you’re still hesitant about giving feedback, take a second and imagine you were in the other person’s shoes,” she recommends. “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.”
She says she hopes her research will encourage people to give constructive feedback more often. “Even if you feel hesitant to give feedback, we recommend you give it,” she says. “The person most likely wants it more than you think.”
Kendra Wong is a freelance journalist in Victoria, British Columbia. She worked for 5 years as a journalist at a number of newspapers, where she enjoyed reporting on breaking news, becoming entrenched in local communities, and telling people’s stories. Kendra currently works in communications and lives with her husband and daughter.