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Research Confirms It — People Actually Do Want Feedback, But How You Give It Matters
While the thought of giving or getting feedback might conjure up dread, or as one friend said to me when I told her where I worked, “Hearing the word ‘feedback’ causes me to involuntarily clench my buttocks,” most people do want feedback, especially if that feedback can help them improve their skills or fix a problem.
One of the best ways to make your intentions clear when you want to offer guidance* to someone is to state your intention to be helpful before giving them feedback.
In Radical Candor, Kim Scott notes, “Perhaps the simplest advice I have to give here is for you to tell the person you are giving feedback to that you are trying to be helpful. Try a little preamble for hard criticism.”
She continues, “For example, try saying, in words that feel like you, ‘I’m going to tell you something because if I were in your shoes I’d want to know so I could fix it.’ Simply exposing your intent to be helpful offers clarity to the other person about your intentions. Most people will want to hear whatever it is you’re going to say.”
It’s not just sound advice — a new study from the American Psychological Association and researchers from Harvard Business School and the University of California, Berkeley, confirms that most people want feedback more than you think.
I’m going to tell you something because if I were in your shoes I’d want to know so I could fix it.” — Kim Scott, ‘Radical Candor’ author and co-founder
The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that people indeed do want to hear helpful feedback and explains that people consistently underestimate others’ desire for helpful feedback and therefore don’t provide it, even when it could improve another person’s performance.
“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 before a client presentation, or telling a job candidate about a stained shirt before an interview,” lead author Nicole Abi-Esber, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, says in a press release.
“Overall, our research found that people consistently underestimate others’ desire for feedback, which can have harmful results for would-be feedback recipients.”
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People Do Want Feedback
When I was a new newspaper editor just out of college, I found out that I had been formatting images wrong for months. We were a small team, and editors were responsible for all of the editing, some writing, and paginating the paper before it was sent to press.
I had zero pagination experience and was shown a short tutorial by the outgoing editor before being left to my own devices.
When I was promoted to edit a larger paper at the same company, one of the design managers came to my desk and asked if she could show me something that would make both of our jobs easier as it was her job to input the ads after I was finished inputting the stories and photos.
After I said, “of course!” she proceeded to teach me how to properly format the images in the design software.
It turns out she has been fixing my mistakes for months, and when I moved up to edit the company’s largest paper she decided to make both of our lives easier by giving me this valuable feedback.
I was very grateful and also a little embarrassed that I had been doing it wrong and had in turn created extra work for her.
I ended up working there for two years. Imagine all of the additional work and pent-up frustration on her part if she had never told me, not to mention the embarrassment on my side when I eventually found out.
An even worse scenario — what if she didn’t tell me and decided to stop correcting the error and a newspaper full of distorted photos went to press? I’d be publicly humiliated.
Because she approached me with kindness and I knew she wanted us both to succeed (and the bonus of her having said it would make our jobs easier), I was open to hearing her feedback.
I am so glad she clued me in and gave me the opportunity to fix my mistake. My only wish is that she had told me immediately.
How You Give Feedback Matters
On the other hand, challenging someone without first demonstrating that you care about them as a human being triggers that automatic defensive response we’re all familiar with.
Had the design manager approached me in anger and told me she was tired of correcting my mistakes, I would still have been alerted to the problem and been able to fix it, but it would have done significant damage to our professional relationship.
According to Dr. David Rock, the author of Your Brain at Work, the question “Can I offer you some feedback?” generates a response in people similar to hearing fast footsteps behind them at night (or the “involuntary clenching of the buttocks”).
Consider these two scenarios:
- Your boss calls you into their office and says, “I have some feedback for you. Your work is full of typos. What are you, stupid? Fix it and stop embarrassing the company or I’ll find someone who can do it correctly.”
- Your boss calls you into their office and says, “Your latest report was really compelling and I appreciate all of the research you did to drive your points home. I did notice several typos and I want to point them out to you because small mistakes can take away from what should be a great success for you and the company. Going forward, don’t be afraid to ask someone to proofread your work.”
Which one is more likely to make you better at your job and grateful for the feedback? If you said number two, you’re already beginning to understand Radical Candor.
The first example is what we call Obnoxious Aggression, being clear but not kind.
The second example employs our CORE Model for effective feedback. CORE feedback includes both caring and challenging.
C — Context (Cite the specific situation.) — Your latest report was really compelling and I appreciate all of the research you did to drive your points home.
O — Observation (Describe what was said or done.) — I did notice several typos.
R — Result (What is the most meaningful consequence to you and to them?) — Small mistakes can take away from what should be a great success for you and the company.
E — nExt stEps (What are the expected next steps?) — Going forward, don’t be afraid to ask someone to proofread your work.
While this all sounds simple, it can be incredibly difficult to implement, even when the stakes are relatively low.
The Concept of Radically Candid Feedback Is Simple, But Not Easy
While we’d all like to think of ourselves as the kind of person who would point out something that could cause someone else potential embarrassment, a pilot study conducted by the researchers found that only 2.6% of participants informed a tester of a visible smudge on his or her face (e.g., chocolate, lipstick or red marker) during a survey.
This is similar to the Radical Candor spinach-in-your-teeth example. People do want to know if they have food in their teeth or chocolate on their faces, but there are several ways to let them know — not all of them good.
Consider these four scenarios if you were about to make a public presentation with a giant piece of spinach in your teeth.
- With Radical Candor, a colleague would pull you aside and tell you quietly and kindly. You would learn that you had spinach in your teeth, be able to fix the problem and you would feel minimal embarrassment.
- With Obnoxious Aggression, a colleague would call you out loudly in front of everyone. You would learn that you had spinach in your teeth and be able to fix the problem, but you would feel pretty embarrassed.
- With Ruinous Empathy, a colleague would be too reluctant to tell you because they might make you feel embarrassed and it would be awkward for both of you. You wouldn’t learn about the spinach in your teeth until much later, maybe after many more people had noticed it.
- With Manipulative Insincerity, a colleague wouldn’t tell you about the spinach but would talk about it with others behind your back. You wouldn’t learn about the spinach in your teeth until much later after everyone else knew about it.
I think it’s pretty safe to say most people would rather experience the Radical Candor scenario versus the other three.
When You’re Hesitant to Give Feedback, Flip the Script
According to the APA press release, in subsequent experiments: “The more consequential the feedback (e.g., telling someone they need to improve their presentation skills), the more likely participants were to underestimate the other’s need for feedback and the less likely they were to offer it. The gap was smaller in more everyday, less consequential scenarios, such as when the other person had food on their face or a rip in their pants.”
When you’re on the fence about whether or not to give someone feedback, the researchers recommend shifting your perspective and asking yourself, “If you were this person, would you want feedback?”
I will tell you I have been grateful 100% of the time someone told me I had toilet paper on my shoe after leaving a public restroom. Or that one time when I was driving and someone in another lane flagged me down at a traffic light to let me know my car was smoking — that was something I was immensely grateful to know.
On a pre-pandemic trip to Las Vegas, I was in the elevator with a group of people when I noticed the man next to me had the tag on his shirt out. I said, “Hey, your tag is out,” then I reached up and tucked it in (I’m not suggesting you touch strangers, but it felt OK for me at that moment in Vegas).
He turned to me with a look of surprise. “Thank you! I have been walking around like that all day and none of these people told me,” he said, gesturing to his group of friends.
I will admit that I did fail to tell my server at brunch earlier this year that his fly was down, but it’s important to remind yourself that Radical Candor is about progress, not perfection. It’s a muscle, and the more you use it — the easier it gets. If I could go back and tell him, I would.
So, the lesson here is to just say it, but remember, how you say it matters. By practicing Radical Candor and demonstrating care before you give feedback, you can build trusting relationships with others — even with strangers. (Watch Kim’s Radical Candor from Strangers Video.)
Kim says: “It turns out that when people trust you and believe you care about them, they are much more likely to accept and act on your praise and criticism; tell you what they really think about what you are doing well and, more importantly, not doing so well; engage in this same behavior with one another, meaning less pushing the rock up the hill again and again; embrace their role on the team and focus on getting results.”
Basically, you can get more done with less drama. And, who doesn’t want that?
*(Kim Scott prefers to use the word guidance to remove the uneasiness associated with the word feedback but for the purpose of this post I have used the term feedback.)
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Need help practicing Radical Candor? Then you need The Feedback Loop (think Groundhog Day meets The Office), a 5-episode workplace comedy series starring David Alan Grier that brings to life Radical Candor’s simple framework for navigating candid conversations.
You’ll get an hour of hilarious content about a team whose feedback fails are costing them business; improv-inspired exercises to teach everyone the skills they need to work better together, and after-episode action plans you can put into practice immediately to up your helpful feedback EQ.
We’re offering Radical Candor readers 10% off the self-paced e-course. Follow this link and enter the promo code FEEDBACK at checkout.