• People are more willing to hear constructive feedback than we realize.
  • It makes them feel valued and can improve work performance, a new study has found.
  • Yet most of us refrain from giving feedback out of fear of causing offence.

Have you ever found yourself wanting to give someone feedback but held back out of fear of offending? Well, next time, go ahead and say something, provided of course it's constructive.

That’s the advice of researchers in the United States who asked almost 2,000 people how they felt about giving and receiving constructive feedback. They were surprised to find people welcomed feedback even if it was slightly critical.

Constructive feedback: welcoming or upsetting

For example, only 2.6% of the people in the study plucked up the courage to tell a researcher they had food or lipstick on their face. They were worried the person might be upset or embarrassed.

But when asked how they would feel about being told something similar, 86% said they would rather receive the feedback. When the same group were asked whether they would be willing to give feedback, only 48% said they would.

A quarter of people who met a researcher with a smudge on their face claimed not to have noticed. “Given how obvious the blemish was on the researcher’s face we think it is very unlikely that 27% of the sample truly did not notice it,” said lead author Nicole Abi-Esber of Harvard Business School.

“We suspect instead that participants may have claimed not to notice to avoid further questioning or having to give feedback. However, we took the participants at their word.”

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

Fear of being offensive

The research, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, concludes that constructive feedback is “instrumental for aiding learning and performance”.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report emphasized the importance of employee engagement in helping people adapt to the fast-changing world of work, driven by the rapid rise of technology.

Constructive feedback is often welcomed and improves performance.
Constructive feedback is often welcomed and improves performance.
Image: Unsplash

The Harvard team says that previous studies have shown most people say they want to receive constructive feedback. So, why are they reluctant to give feedback to others? Bad past experiences of receiving upsetting feedback is a major factor, they say.

Reluctance to give feedback also increased when people feared it would have a negative impact. Concern about harming personal relationships was an important consideration, regardless of how close people’s relationships were.

“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… or telling a job candidate about a stained shirt before an interview,” said Abi-Esber.

“Overall, our research found that people consistently underestimate others’ desire for feedback, which can have harmful results for would-be feedback recipients,” she added. People simply do not fully recognize the potential of their input to help others.

“Even if you feel hesitant to give feedback, we recommend that you give it,” said Abi-Esber. “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. Most likely you would.”

Co-author Francesca Gino added: “The next time you hear someone mispronounce a word, see a stain on their shirt or notice a typo on their slide, we urge you to point it out to them - they probably want feedback more than you think.”