How to give constructive feedback

Experts say fear keeps us from sharing constructive feedback, but there are reasons why you should speak up anyway. Nicolas Ortega/The New York Times
One thing I want to improve about myself is my ability to tell other people how to improve themselves. I am terrible at giving constructive feedback. I recently hired an administrative assistant, and I find myself far more inclined to praise her for how well she’s doing than to provide suggestions that might help her do an even better job — even though doing so would not only benefit her but also directly benefit me.

This hesitation to speak up sneaks into my personal life, too. I often have a hard time suggesting that my partner try a different disciplinary approach with our kids, even though I have just written an evidence-based parenting book and I know what will probably work best.

Reluctance to provide helpful feedback is, in fact, commonplace. A study published online in March found that most people were wary to share feedback that would ultimately be useful to the other person — even though, the same study found, most people genuinely did want to hear it.

“We really want feedback, but when we see someone else, we’re a little hesitant to give it,” explained study author Nicole Abi-Esber, a doctoral student in organisational behaviour at Harvard Business School.

For instance, out of 155 people in Abi-Esber’s study who interacted with a researcher who had something on her face — chocolate, lipstick or red marker — only four people pointed out the blemish. Participants said they would also be unlikely to give feedback when a co-worker mispronounced a name, made errors in reports or spoke too quickly during a presentation.

One reason we rarely share constructive criticism, the study found, is that we underestimate just how much people want it.

Another reason we often hold back is that we worry about the effect our comments could have on our relationship with others, Abi-Esber said. We think: Will telling them this make them resent me?

Yet most of the time, Abi-Esber said, people do want to hear our suggestions.

So how do we overcome the tendency to stay quiet? Abi-Esber and her team tested various strategies to coax people to speak up, and they found that the best approach was to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Lauren Simon, a professor of management at the University of Arkansas, suggested thinking about the negative effects of not providing feedback.

But giving too much feedback is a common error. “Focusing on the key priorities for improvement, with clear guidance on how to take the next steps, can be the most motivating,” said Naomi Winstone, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Surrey in Britain.

Research by Katherine L. Milkman and others suggests that we are more likely to change our own behaviour when we are specific about the goals we set for ourselves, and the same may be true when setting goals for others, said Catherine Sanderson, a psychologist at Amherst College.

“A coach who says ‘try harder’ to an underperforming athlete might be less effective than a coach who says, ‘You need to develop greater strength, so starting tomorrow you should spend 30 minutes each day lifting weights,’ ” Sanderson said.

Also, make it clear that you’re commenting on a person’s behaviour rather than their character, Sanderson said. “Don’t make it personal,” she said. “Separate what the person said or did from who they are.”

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