One Word to Better Feedback


You ask colleagues to critique your performance and get nothing. Here’s how to flip the script

Colored loudspeakers on a blue background
Photo credit: Gearstd, iStock

Consider this scenario: In team meetings, your colleague has an annoying habit of saying “like” in every sentence. It’s gotten so bad, it’s hard to focus on the point they’re trying to make, and you hope they don’t have to make a presentation on the team’s behalf.

Here’s my question: Would you correct your colleague’s speech patterns or let them continue making the same mistake? The evidence suggests that most people wouldn’t say anything.

Now let’s turn the tables. You’re the one who likes “like” a little too much. Would you want someone to point that out? I’ll bet you would.

You can change the scenario a hundred and one different ways and still arrive at the same outcome. We have all sorts of reasons to avoid giving constructive feedback to team members despite knowing, deep down, that if the roles were reversed, we’d welcome the help. We fear hurting a colleague’s feelings or being impolite. We’re concerned about potential blowback if the colleague resents our feedback. We may think it takes too much of our time.

Underestimating the benefit

There’s truth in all that, but a recent study raises an underappreciated and more subtle reason. It seems that, in many cases, people withhold feedback because they don’t recognize how valuable it is for the person on the receiving end. As a consequence, they underestimate their colleague’s desire for feedback.

In a series of experiments by Harvard researchers, out of 212 people surveyed, only four told their survey administrator that they had food or a lipstick smudge on their face. This was even the case when the feedback giver and receiver knew each other well.

This reluctance to offer feedback is not useful for any of us. And it’s certainly not useful for hybrid teams or groups with diverse memberships that struggle to stay aligned and focused on the task at hand. As Diana Drury, director of team and executive coaching at Smith School of Business, has said, feedback is “a gift, a growth opportunity, and too often people aren’t receiving it in today’s workplace.”

Now, what if you’re the one on the receiving end? You’re the one who craves constructive input on your performance. I put the emphasis on constructive because surveys show that only about a quarter of employees believe the feedback they receive helps them do their work better. In fact, studies confirm a weak relationship between work feedback and performance.

Ask for advice

So if you’re looking for an honest assessment of how you’re doing from a boss or colleague and you get a nothingburger in return, what are your options?

The potential solution to this problem may be simpler than you realize. Researchers recently looked at the feedback-seeking-and-giving process, trying to put their finger on why people frequently fail to get actionable input relating to their performance. They found that the answer may lie in the use of one word: “feedback”.

The researchers found that when managers or colleagues were asked specifically for feedback, they got stuck in past performance rather than adopting a future-focused mindset. This mindset is a way of thinking that best enables people to generate constructive, actionable insights.

Critically, the researchers identified a simple yet powerful alternative: feedback seekers should ask for “advice” instead.

Across four studies, they found that input from bosses and co-workers was more developmental and useful—that is, more critical and actionable—when they were asked to offer advice rather than feedback. Framing an input request as seeking advice triggers that future-focused mindset that gets people to consider how a colleague can perform even better.

It’s easy enough to test this finding in your world. Next time you’d like useful input from a boss or co-worker on how to improve your performance, ask for their advice rather than their feedback.

And while you’re at it, follow the evidence, tackle your inhibition and offer constructive feedback (ahem, advice) to your colleagues. Chances are, they’ll appreciate it more than you may think.