A misguided idea that others are too fragile to hear difficult things may be stopping Americans from telling coworkers what they need to learn and grow, according to a new study published Thursday.
Most people want to know when they’ve got lipstick on their face or typos in a work presentation — but the study found they don’t think coworkers want the same feedback.
The study, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, offered imaginary and real-time scenarios to 1,984 participants. Most did not want to risk giving awkward feedback to a struggling colleague for fear of making a difficult situation worse.
“Someone was repeatedly interrupting a zoom call due to likely a bad internet connection,” one participant wrote. “They had no idea they kept talking over people. It was embarrassing to watch as the problem kept happening and was not corrected.”
On the other side, those who did not get feedback felt worse after nobody confronted them.
“Usually with friends when I get passionate about a topic I come off as very aggressive and argumentative,” another person wrote. “I later feel badly for how I acted.”
Lead researcher Nicole Abi-Esber, a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, said the study confirms that unwillingness to confront others goes beyond fear of embarrassing or upsetting them.
“Even if you feel hesitant to give feedback, we recommend you give it [because] the person most likely wants it more than you think,” Ms. Abi-Esber said.
“If you’re still hesitant about giving feedback, take a second and imagine you were in the other person’s shoes, and ask yourself if you would want feedback if you were them,” she added. “Most likely you would, and this realization can help empower you to give them feedback.”
The study asked participants to recall times they either made an error without being corrected or observed someone else doing so. Out of 600 people, 561 could spontaneously describe an example.
“The overwhelming question people have in these scenarios is, why didn’t anyone tell me? And we know from our research it’s pretty common,” Ms. Abi-Esber.
According to the study, participants are hesitant to confront colleagues over “awkward” situations like a stain on a co-worker’s shirt, food in their teeth, or a mispronunciation of someone’s name.
In the pilot study, only 2.6% of participants pointed out a visible smudge that a female researcher left on her face with chocolate, lipstick or red markers.
“Feedback is key to personal growth and improvement, and it can fix problems that are otherwise costly to the recipient,” said co-author Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School. “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.”
Some behavioral experts on Thursday welcomed the study as evidence that excessive concern for safe spaces can isolate others from what they need to hear, adding to workplace anxiety.
“It is an especially important topic for current times as so many people feel that they are walking on eggshells trying not to upset or offend anyone given our very stressful and sensitive interpersonal times,” said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University.
“If you can present feedback in a way that is respectful, compassionate, with good intentions and their well-being in mind too, then people usually can listen to it and not get defensive,” Mr. Plante added. “Certainly, it can be stressful to give people hard corrective feedback, but this is one good study that suggests that it is worth the effort.”
Karene A. Putney, a business etiquette consultant at Maryland-based Etiquette Etiquette, said she found the study “right on point” even though some people “are afraid of criticism.”
Approaching others with a smile and politeness can help defuse the conversation from an etiquette standpoint, she said.
“As humans, we teach each other and support each other to help others grow,” Mrs. Putney said. “Make the approach right, and we can surely win a friend over by our honesty.”
• Sean Salai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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