Imagine that all your life, unbeknownst to you, you’ve been making an embarrassing error. Ideally, someone sets you straight, preventing you from making the same misstep going forward. Alas, most people hesitate to extend constructive feedback. Research from Nicole Abi-Esber and Juliana Schroeder, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, finds evidence of a significant “feedback gap”: People often withhold feedback, even when the recipient welcomes it. Learn how to gauge whether others are open to feedback, and why hesitating to give feedback isn’t always the best move.
- People often mistakenly assume that others don’t want constructive feedback.
- A significant “feedback gap” exists because people underestimate others’ desire for useful feedback.
- If you want to attract helpful feedback, consider sharing constructive suggestions with others.
People often mistakenly assume that others don’t want constructive feedback.
Sometimes you would benefit from constructive feedback – say, when you mispronounce a word or have a smudge of chocolate on your face – yet others fail to give it to you. Research shows that people avoid giving others useful feedback for two reasons: They don’t want to be “the bearer of bad news,” and they don’t want to embarrass others or hurt their feelings.
“Maybe people hesitate to give others feedback because they simply don’t recognize how much other people want to hear their feedback.”
Researchers Nicole Abi-Esber and Juliana Schroeder studied why people hesitate to give constructive feedback, publishing their insights in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers found that across multiple contexts – including formal and informal situations, between close friends and among strangers, and in trivial and serious matters – people underestimate others’ desire for feedback.
A significant “feedback gap” exists because people underestimate others’ desire for constructive feedback.
To better understand feedback gaps, Abi-Esber and Schroeder had research assistants daub a smear of chocolate on their faces and approach students on a busy college campus, asking them to take a survey in return for a small cash payment. In reality, the survey examined how many respondents informed the researchers of the chocolate smudge on their faces. Of the 155 respondents who admitted noticing the chocolate blotch, only four people, or 2.6%, told the researchers about it. When those who noticed the daub of chocolate but failed to inform the survey taker were asked why they didn’t speak up, 40% of respondents claimed they didn’t think the person would want to know; 37% cited reasons related to themselves, such as, “I didn’t want to be rude” and “It wasn’t my business”; and 23% offered other justifications, such as, “I was in a hurry” or “The researcher looked busy.”
“In almost every situation, we found that people underestimated others’ desire for feedback. And the more consequential the situation, the more people underestimated the desire for feedback.”
In a further experiment, the researchers asked online participants to imagine themselves in numerous workplace situations, with varying degrees of gravitas, in which they could theoretically give feedback – such as talking to someone with a stained shirt or witnessing rude behavior. Again, respondents consistently underestimated others’ desire for feedback.
In yet another experiment, the researchers invited pairs of people with close friendships or romantic relationships to give and receive feedback live via Zoom. Every feedback-giver had to predict how much the feedback-receiver wanted to hear their suggestions. Meanwhile, every feedback-receiver, upon hearing the overarching topic of the feedback (for instance, “exercise habits”) had to express how much they wanted to hear the advice. Invariably, participants significantly misjudged just how much others wanted feedback: 86% of feedback-receivers reported wanting to receive feedback, but only 48% of feedback-givers wanted to share it. Moreover, feedback-receivers valued the feedback greater than they themselves predicted they would.
If you want to attract helpful feedback, consider sharing constructive suggestions with others.
People consistently want feedback but are hesitant to give it. What are some strategies to close this feedback gap? Abi-Esber and Schroeder tested two interventions to see whether taking a different perspective might impact subjects’ likelihood of giving feedback. They asked one group of participants to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes before sharing predictions about how much they might want feedback. They asked another group to consider what they’d think if someone else provided the feedback. Both groups, after taking time to reflect, predicted people’s desire for feedback more accurately than a control group that didn’t reflect on these perspectives, yet neither intervention closed the feedback gap entirely.
“Briefly imagining how much you would want the feedback if you were the other person might help you realize how much they want the feedback, and may make you more likely to actually give it.”
The feedback gap is pervasive. Bear in mind that, more often than not, recipients tend to be grateful for useful feedback. Stop hesitating so much and share feedback if you yourself would want it, closing the feedback gap.
About the Authors
Nicole Abi-Esber is a Harvard Business School doctoral candidate, and an incoming assistant professor of organizational behavior with the London School of Economics management department. Juliana Schroeder is an associate professor at the Berkeley Haas School of Business.