You just gave a great presentation to your class or co-workers and landed an invitation to share at your State’s annual athletic training meeting. Now you want a second opinion on your presentation to see if there’s anything you can improve. What do you do?
You should ask your colleagues for feedback, according to conventional wisdom. However, research shows feedback often has no (or even negative) impact on our performance. Feedback is often too vague – it doesn’t tell us what we can improve on or how.
There’s a better way, according to the latest research. In four experiments – including one in an executive education classroom – people got more feedback when they asked for advice.
One study asked 200 people to critique a tutoring job application letter written by a peer. In some cases, people were asked to give feedback, while in others, they were asked to give advice. Those who gave feedback tended to give vague, generally praising comments. One reviewer who was asked to give feedback said: “This person seems to meet a lot of the requirements. They have experience with kids, and the proper skills to teach someone else. Overall, they seem like a reasonable applicant.”
The same application letter got more critical and actionable feedback when people were asked for advice. In one reviewer’s comments, he added more specific action items: “I’d add your previous tutoring or child interaction experience. Describe your tutoring style and why you chose it. Add what your ultimate end goal would be for an average 7-year-old.”
Comparatively, those asked for advice suggested 34% more areas for improvement and 56% more ways to improve than those asked for feedback.
In another study, 194 full-time employees were asked to describe a colleague’s performance on a recent task. The tasks ranged from “putting labels on items” to “creating new marketing strategies.” Then, employees gave feedback or advice on their performance. Once again, those who were asked to provide feedback gave less critical and actionable input (e.g. one wrote, “They gave a very good performance without any complaints related to his work”) than those asked to provide advice (e.g. one wrote, “In the future, I suggest checking in with our executive officers more frequently. During the event, please walk around, and be present to make sure people see you”).
A field experiment using instructor evaluations further replicated these findings. More than 70 executive education students around the world provided feedback or advice to their instructors at the end of the course. There were more detailed explanations of what worked and what didn’t, like: “I loved the cases. But I would have preferred concentrating more time on learning specific tools that would help improve the negotiation skills of the participants.” Feedback, in contrast, often included generalities, such as “This faculty’s content and style of teaching were very good.”
Why is asking for advice better than asking for feedback? There’s a connection between feedback and evaluation, it turns out. At school, we get letter grades. Every time we get a performance evaluation in the workplace, we get feedback. As a result of this link between feedback and evaluation, people tend to focus more on judging others’ performance when asked for feedback. Imagining someone’s future and how they’ll perform makes it harder. This leads to feedback givers giving less critical and actionable feedback.
People tend to focus more on possible future actions when asked for advice. History can’t be changed, but the future can. When you ask someone for advice, they’ll probably look forward to future opportunities to improve rather than backward to things you’ve already done.
Is asking for feedback always a bad idea? Probably not.
Sometimes it’s better to ask for feedback. Newbie athletic trainers in the field usually don’t find critiques and specific feedback motivating – partly because they don’t feel like they have the basic skills to improve. You might get more high-level encouragement and less demotivating criticism by asking for feedback rather than advice as a novice athletic trainer.
You can learn a lot from your peers, colleagues, and patients at work and school. It’s not always effective to ask for feedback to promote growth and learning. This happens when givers focus too much on evaluating past actions and don’t make suggestions for future ones.
Is there a way to get over this barrier? Let’s ask our peers, colleagues, and bosses for advice instead.