Why asking for advice is more effective than asking for feedback

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By Jaewon Yoon, Hayley Blunden, Ariella Kristal & Ashley Whillans

You just gave a great first pitch to a major client and landed an invitation to pitch to their senior leaders. Now you want a second opinion on your presentation to see if there’s anything you can improve.

Conventional wisdom says you should ask your colleagues for feedback. However, research suggests that feedback often has no (or even a negative) impact on our performance. The feedback we receive is often too vague—it fails to highlight what we can improve on, or how to improve.

Our latest research suggests a better approach. Across four experiments—including a field test conducted in an executive education classroom—we found that people received more effective input when they asked for advice rather than feedback.

In one study, we asked 200 people to offer input on a job application letter for a tutoring position, written by one of their peers. Some people were asked to provide this input in the form of “feedback,” while others were asked to provide “advice.” Those who provided feedback tended to give vague, generally praising comments.

In fact, compared with those asked to give feedback, those asked to provide “advice” suggested 34 percent more areas of improvement and 56 percent more ways to improve. As it turns out, feedback is often associated with evaluation. In contrast, when asked to provide advice, people focus less on evaluation and more on possible future actions.

Organizations are full of opportunities to learn from peers, colleagues and clients. Despite its prevalence, asking for feedback is often an ineffective strategy for promoting growth and learning. Our work suggests this is because when givers focus too much on evaluating past actions, they fail to provide tangible recommendations for future ones. How can we overcome this barrier? By asking our peers, clients, colleagues and bosses for advice instead.

Jaewon Yoon and Hayley Blunden are doctoral students in the organizational behavior program at the Harvard Business School, where Ariella Kristal is a doctoral candidate and Ashley Whillans is an assistant professor.

Image credits: Kianlin | Dreamstime.com


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