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People fail to realize desire of others for constructive input

by Pragati Singh

According to studies published by the American Psychological Association, people routinely underestimate others’ desire for constructive criticism and, as a result, do not supply it, even when it may improve another person’s performance in a job.

“People frequently have opportunities to provide 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 indicated that people regularly underestimate other people’s needs for feedback, which might have negative consequences for feedback recipients.”

According to the researchers, constructive feedback is important for improving learning and performance, and research has shown that people frequently express a desire for this sort of feedback. However, despite their need for critical input, people frequently avoid providing it to others. In a pilot study done by the researchers, just 2.6 percent of participants admitted to having a noticeable smudge on their face (e.g., chocolate, lipstick, or red marker).

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association.

A previous study reveals that people avoid providing feedback because they are afraid of the negative consequences, such as the other person being humiliated or angered. Abi-Esber and her colleagues hypothesised that there may be another reason for people withholding feedback.

To put their theory to the test, the researchers ran five tests with 1,984 individuals to see how much people underestimate others’ desire for constructive comments. In one study, participants were given ten hypothetical unpleasant social situations at work in which they might either provide or receive constructive comments. Another experiment asked participants to recollect a circumstance in which they may have either offered or received constructive comments. Participants were partnered in the final experiment, with one rehearsing a speech for a competition and the other listening and providing criticism.

People in positions to provide feedback consistently overestimated their potential recipients’ desire for it across all five tests.

The more important the feedback (for example, informing someone they need to improve their presenting abilities), the more likely participants were to underestimate each other’s need for criticism and the less likely they were to provide it. The margin was less in less serious situations, such as when the other person had food on their face or a rip in their clothes.

The researchers were startled to discover that simply changing one’s perspective might enhance the probability that someone would identify the need for and offer feedback. Simply asking people to immediately think, “Would you want feedback if you were this person?” helped participants appreciate the significance of feedback to the other person and helped reduce the giver-receiver gap.

Even if you are hesitant to provide comments, we suggest that you do so, “Abil-Esber added. Consider putting yourself in the shoes of the other person and asking yourself if you would want feedback if you were them. Most certainly, you would, and this knowledge might help you feel more empowered to provide criticism to them. “

Feedback is essential for personal development and progress, and it may solve problems that would otherwise be costly to the recipient, said co-author Francesca Gino, PhD, also of Harvard Business School. “The next time you hear someone mispronounce a phrase, see a stain on their shirt, or spot a typo on their slide, we encourage you to call it out to them — they probably want feedback more than you think.”

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