Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: I tell my church growth and health clients that I will be brutally honest with them and they must be prepared for direct and non-sugarcoated feedback. If they’re not willing to receive such feedback, then I can’t take them as a client. That is because I’ve learned over the years that without clear and honest feedback clients will misinterpret the severity of the situation. Below is research that explains the illusion of transparency bias.
Are You Sugarcoating Your Feedback Without Realizing It?
by Michael Schaerer and Roderick Swaab, Harvard Business Review, 10/8/19.
… Managers tend to inflate the feedback they give to their direct reports, particularly when giving bad news. And by presenting subpar performance more positively than they should, managers make it impossible for employees to learn, damaging their careers and, often, the company.
Previous research into this kind of feedback inflation has centered on the idea that managers deliberately sugarcoat tough messages for fear of retaliation, or to protect their employees from feeling bad about themselves. But our research shows that many managers deliver inflated feedback unintentionally, and in fact think they’ve been much more clear than is the case. These findings point to some simple ways to improve how managers impart criticism.
We believe that managers’ assumption that their direct reports understand what they mean is due to a common cognitive bias called the illusion of transparency, in which people are so focused on their own intense feelings and intentions that they overestimate the extent to which their inner worlds come across to others. As a result their words may be too vague to convey their true intent. The illusion of transparency is one of the most commoncauses of misunderstandings when we communicate with others…
What to Do About It
While it can be helpful to become aware of unintentional behaviors, overcoming them is notoriously difficult. Our research points to several ways to combat the illusion of transparency.
First, increase the frequency of feedback. As a manager, you can augment your annual appraisals with continuous reminders, ongoing training, and structured weekly or monthly “pulse checks” to break the discomfort that may be preventing you from communicating more clearly. Research has found that giving feedback more frequently makes feedback more accurate. This repetition will also help reinforce your message.
Firms should also promote a culture that encourages employees to request more candid feedback from their managers prior to appraisals. Failing that, firms can institute a formal process obligating them to do so.
… Ultimately, clarity and specificity of language are managers’ best tools. Use clear language and avoid phrases that could obscure your meaning. One phrase to avoid, for example, is “a real possibility,” which people interpret as conveying a likelihood of anywhere from 20%–80%. Also, ask your employee to paraphrase what you’ve told them to make sure they fully understand your message. Managers also need to actively encourage employees to tell them how they see their own performance. As a manager, ask open-ended questions like, “What am I not seeing here? What may I be overlooking?”
Employees themselves can dispel many incorrect assumptions by asking questions, or by requesting that managers use precise, explicit terms when delivering feedback. If your manager doesn’t ask you to rearticulate what they’ve told you, try using statements that begin, “So if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying…”