Why Asking for Advice Is More Effective Than Asking for Feedback

Jaewon Yoon, Hayley Blunden, Ariella Kristal, and Ashley Whillans, 20 Sept 2019, HBR.com

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. This is because 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 experiment 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. For example, one reviewer who was asked to give feedback made the following comment: “This person seems to meet quite a few of the requirements. They have experience with kids, and the proper skills to teach someone else. Overall, they seem like a reasonable applicant.”

However, when asked to give advice on the same application letter, people offered more critical and actionable input. One reviewer noted more specific action items: “I would add in your previous experience tutoring or similar interactions with children. Describe your tutoring style and why you chose it. Add what your ultimate end goal would be for an average 7 year old.”

In fact, compared to those asked to give feedback, those asked to provide “advice” suggested 34% more areas of improvement and 56% more ways to improve.

In another study, we asked 194 full-time employees in the U.S. to describe a colleague’s performance on a recent work task. These tasks ranged from “putting labels on items” to “creating new marketing strategies.” Then, we asked employees to give feedback or advice on the work performance they just described. 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”).

We further replicated these findings in a field experiment using instructor evaluations. In an end-of-course evaluation, we asked 70+ executive education students from around the world to provide either feedback or advice to their instructors. Again, advice more frequently contained detailed explanations of what worked and what didn’t, such as: “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 was very good.”

Why is asking for advice more effective than asking for feedback? As it turns out, feedback is often associated with evaluation. At school, we receive feedback with letter grades. When we enter the workforce, we receive feedback with our performance evaluations. Because of this link between feedback and evaluation, when people are asked to provide feedback, they often focus on judging others’ performance; they think more about how others performed in the past. This makes it harder to imagine someone’s future and possibly better performance. As a result, feedback givers end up providing less critical and actionable input.

In contrast, when asked to provide advice, people focus less on evaluation and more on possible future actions. Whereas the past is unchangeable, the future is full of possibilities. So, if you ask someone for advice, they will be more likely to think forward to future opportunities to improve rather than backwards to the things you have done, which you can no longer change.

To document this effect, we ran another study that was very similar to our first. In this experiment, we again asked hundreds of people to provide feedback or advice on a peer’s job application. But this time, we also asked feedback providers to shift their focus toward “developing the writer.” When removed from an evaluation mindset, by focusing more on developing the recipient, feedback providers were just as critical and actionable in their input as advice providers.

Is asking for feedback always a worse strategy than asking for advice? Not necessarily.

Sometimes soliciting feedback may be more beneficial. People who are novices in their field typically find critical and specific input less motivating — in part because they don’t feel like they have the basic skills necessary to improve. So for novices, it might be better to ask for feedback, rather than advice, to receive less demotivating criticism and more high-level encouragement.

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 is a PhD student in the organization behavior program at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on time communication and feedback exchange.

Hayley Blunden is a PhD student in the organizational behavior program at Harvard Business School.

Ariella Kristal is a doctoral candidate in Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on how environments can be structured to reduce bias in the workplace, in educational settings, in the online context, and in many others.

Ashley Whillans is an Assistant Professor in the Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets unit at the Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on time, money, and happiness.


In your 20s, on pocket – not that I admire accumulating great wealth…

1. They develop multiple income sources.

Almost nobody acquires great wealth simply by working for somebody else. In fact, typical millionaires have at least seven different sources of income, and start to acquire them in their 20s. So even if you have a full-time job, it’s crucial to develop the attitude that ultimately you are in charge of your income—not your employer.

2. They take action (and sometimes, they fail).

Most people talk, talk, talk, talk—and never do anything. Don’t be one of them. Try lots of things. Act. And as a corollary, don’t worry about failing. (Surprise: You will fail many times.) As long as you don’t do anything ridiculously immoral or illegal, nobody will even remember your failures.

3. They make sure that they own their time.

One thing you’ll hear constantly from older wealthy people: You can always make more money, but you can’t make more time. As a young person, spend your time doing things that matter to you and that build value. Don’t spend it on other people’s short-term dramas, and definitely don’t slave away for an employer that doesn’t value you.

4. They network, a lot. (And they do it both ways.)

What’s networking but jargon for “meeting new people.” Your network is like a bank, however; you have to make deposits before you can make withdrawals. So make sure to allow yourself to “be networked,” too. Even if you’re just starting out, chances are you’re already in a position where other people would like to meet you.

5. They think strategically.

This is really just a fancy way of saying that wealthy people have usually learned to decide what their goals are, then work backward to figure out what they have to do each year, each week—and even each day—to make it happen. Then they track their progress.

6. They shoot higher than seems reasonable.

All things being equal, it’s better to aim at making $20 million and achieve only 10 percent of your goal than it is to aim at making $1 million and achieve it. Because here’s a hint: No matter how high you set your goal, once you achieve it, you’ll probably think you should have aimed higher anyway.

7. They learn to sell.

Always be eager to show others how the things you have to offer can make their lives better. That’s real sales—whether you’re selling widgets for work or trying to convince the object of your affection to go on a date with you. Learn to be a good salesperson; that means also being an ethical salesperson.

8. They try to be good friends and colleagues.

Does this one surprise you? It shouldn’t. Your reputation is one of your most valuable assets. You want to be the kind of person who makes people think, “Oh, she’s great! I’d love to work with her (or for her).” So be the girl who is there when your friends need you, or the guy who people know they can count on. Your friends will remember, and they’ll tell others.

9. They invest.

Beyond contributing to their 401(k)s, future millionaires also learn to invest a bit more aggressively. When you’re young, you can afford more risk than when you’re older (maybe then you’ll have kids and a mortgage, for example). Even if you don’t have much to invest now, it’s still smart to do so on a small scale, even just to develop comfort and make it a habit.

10. They watch their spending.

You don’t have to be a cheapskate or miss out on all the fun and adventure life has to offer (in fact, see No. 18 below). But you want to be smart about it. Sure, have a blast–just watch where your money goes, track it, spend deliberately, and always try to get the best deal possible. Speaking of which…

11. They learn to negotiate.

Almost everything in life is negotiable. The wealthiest and most successful people know that the keys to any negotiation are threefold: First, understand what the other side really wants. Next, figure out how to get what you want in a way that gets the other side closer to what they want. But in the end, be willing to walk away if it won’t work.

12. They find mentors.

One great thing about the world is that no matter what you want to do, someone out there has probably already done it—or at least part of it. If you can find out who they are and how they got there, it’s an incredible advantage. It’s an even bigger advantage if you can get them to advise you—and maybe see a little of themselves in you, too.

13. They invest in education.

Don’t misread this: It doesn’t mean borrow thousands to pursue an advanced degree unless a) you’re sure it makes financial sense, and b) you’re confident you really want to pursue the career your degree prepares you for. Instead, it means simply becoming a lifelong learner, and not paying more than you have to for your education.

14. They refuse to become slaves.

Lots of people in their 20s quickly submit to things they shouldn’t. They accept other people’s notions of what a “good” career is, or what a good relationship looks like, or how they should spend their time. Listen to all advice skeptically (including this column!) and embrace the freedom to set your own goals and achieve them.

15. They volunteer to do more.

Volunteer, but do so with three things in mind: First, volunteer to do things that you feel good about. Second, volunteer to do things that will be learning experiences. Third, don’t volunteer in a way that makes you somebody’s sucker. Example: Don’t volunteer at work to do things that won’t add to your skill set, won’t increase your value, or won’t be appreciated.

16. They work their butts off.

Nothing really good comes easily in life, and most self-made multimillionaires will tell you eagerly that their success required lots of hard work. There’s one secret that makes this easier, however, which is that hard work doesn’t have to mean drudgery. Life is a lot more fun if you spend it working hard at things you really enjoy and value. So choose wisely.

17. They embrace entrepreneurship.

Most self-made multimillionaires are entrepreneurs, so it’s smart to learn a bit about becoming an entrepreneur. Learn about business leadership and entrepreneurial finance, sure, but most important: Learn to think like an entrepreneur. I always come back to a modified version of the Harvard Business School definition of the word: the relentless pursuit of opportunity, regardless of how limited your current resources.

18. They have fun and adventures.

Don’t let the pursuit of wealth and success block out other opportunities to grow and enjoy life. Travel, write, play music, jump out of airplanes–do the things you’ll be talking about for years to come. You’ll also find that you get some of your best ideas and solve your thorniest problems when you give your brain a rest and do something else.

19. They believe they can do this.

In a way, this should be the first item on the list. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. But if you don’t succeed at becoming wealthy in your 30s, the largest reason will likely be either that you didn’t believe you could when you were in your 20s, or you didn’t want it badly enough. The time to overcome that is now.


Here’s Why Time Off Work Actually Improves Your Work and Life

Powering through your work week after week can cause some serious tunnel vision and prevent you from accomplishing what you’re capable of.

Darius Foroux

What do you do when you feel tired or overwhelmed? Do you power through? Or do you take some time off?

In the past, I thought that you should always power through — no matter what. Now, I still think that way when it comes to life in general. You can’t quit taking care of yourself and your family.

A sense of responsibility is one of the most powerful motivators in life. But I’m not talking about a lack of motivation here.

I’m talking about taking time off work. But there’s still a massive taboo on taking time off. Some people think it’s for losers. Others think it’s about escaping your work.

After all, “If you love your work and life, why do you even need a break?”

Good point, smart ass. Here’s why time off actually IMPROVES your work and life.

Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist, who also co-authored two books with Stephen Hawking, recently shared scientific research in his book Elastic about taking time off. He demonstrates that taking time off work improves our well-being:

“Though some may consider “doing nothing” unproductive, a lack of downtime is bad for our well-being, because idle time allows our default network to make sense of what we’ve recently experienced or learned.”

People who never take time off to do nothing are short-term focused. “I want to reach my goals! NOW!”

But as always, short-term thinking harms your long-term development and growth. What happens when you power through work and burn yourself out? In most instances, your results suffer, and you become less productive.

In some cases, you even become depressed — which will set you back even longer. 

Prevent Rather Than Cure

It’s one of the biggest clichés in the book. But how often do we really prevent things? Instead, we put our head down and, “deal with it later.”

Bad strategy. Instead, it’s much better to prevent burn-out or a decrease in your overall work performance.

Dale Carnegie, a self-help pioneer, and author of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, said it best:

“So, to prevent fatigue and worry, the first rule is: Rest often. Rest before you get tired.”

So take time off work strategically throughout the year. That’s what I just did too, and I experienced 5 benefits as a consequence:

1. You Can Check Whether You Did The Right Things

At work, I know two modes:

  1. Execution
  2. Thinking

When you are in execution mode, you can work for hours, days or months in a row. In fact, I know people who’ve been in execution mode for years.

They never took time off to reflect or think about their work. Result? A midlife crisis. Or, young folks who experience a quarter-life crisis.

That’s what you get when you put your head down and execute without thinking.

You might get results. But are those results what you WANT?

When you take time off work, you have more inner-conversations. But when you execute, you don’t.

That’s one of the most important benefits of doing nothing. Sure, you might fall behind on work. But who cares? Would you rather go through your career with tunnel vision?

I need at least ten days off to reflect seriously. For the first five days, I’m still somewhere between execution and thinking mode. It’s hard to switch to thinking and doing nothing if you’re used to doing work.

But I always learn new things about myself after a more extended break. I tend to read a lot. Over the past two weeks, I’ve read five books. But I didn’t write at all. Also, I journaled very little.

Just some reading, watching movies, documentaries, hanging out with friends, talking, daydreaming. That kind of stuff. Neither does it cost much. But the return is enormous.

Now, I feel better, have more energy, and I’m excited to get back to work. That’s also the next lesson I learned.

2. You Get To Process Your Ideas

Your brain does a lot of things you’re not aware of. One thing that happens unconsciously is the processing of ideas by our brain.

We’ve all had ideas that never materialized, right? How many people have you met who claimed to have had the idea for Facebook, Instagram, or any other type of new thing?

I once met a guy who claimed to have come up with the idea of making e-bikes. Did he do something with it? No. He now buys garbage on Alibaba and sells it to businesses, door-to-door.

We all have ideas. Not only business ideas.

  • “I want to redecorate the house.”
  • “I want to drive from NYC to LA.”
  • “I want to write a book.”

All those ideas are great. But what are you going to do with them? I’m not even talking about execution.

All ideas require processing. Are the ideas any good? Do I really want to do those things?

Again, that’s a thinking process. When you go from idea to execution, without processing, you often waste your time in hindsight.

Of course, you can never entirely prevent that. But by taking the time to process your ideas, you can prevent your future self a lot of pain, worry, and even money.

3. You Can Consume More Art

What is art? Anything that makes you think.

A good song, movie, painting, book, poem, article, picture, sculpture, you name it. Anything can be art. There’s no authority that declares what art is and what is not.

I get a lot of my inspiration from art. I can’t imagine what life would be without it. Well, there is art on that too. Just read Fahrenheit 451 or watch the movie Equilibrium.

The best thing about art is that it improves your mood. And when you’re in a good mood, you’re happier.

Just don’t consume useless junk. Start with the classics.

Listen to Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston. Watch movies by Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola. Read Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison. Go to the British Museum. Study Andy Warhol.

Like millions of other people, you’ll be inspired by their work. And that will enrich your life.

4. You Can Focus On Other Important Things (that are not work related)

“Can you tell me more about yourself?”

What do you think of when I ask you that question? Most of us start by saying something like, “I’m an accountant at company X.”

Modern day life almost forces you to identify yourself with work. But you are not your job.

You are your family, friends, hobby’s, passion, and then finally, you also have a job. And yes, work is important. But so are the other things.

So never neglect the other important things in your life. Cultivate the relationships you have with your family and close friends. Do things together. Go on a family holiday. Go mountain biking with your friends.

Show some initiative. If no one in your family or group of friends takes action, why aren’t YOU?

By investing time in your relationships, you form group memories. That will only strengthen your relationships.

But also focus on yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s something you want to learn more about? What did you dream of doing? Do those things.

5. Resting Gets Boring. Quick.

There’s a reason humans work. We’re built to make things. I believe that the purpose of life is to be useful.

Making yourself useful ultimately leads to a meaningful life that satisfies all your human needs.

That’s why too much rest will make us restless. My mother always told me that too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. She told me that when I wanted to hang out with my friends all the time and when I had my first girlfriend.

It’s true. Too much rest, like work, is not good.

Our bodies and minds are made to use.

Hence, the final lesson I learned from doing nothing is this: After rest comes work.

And what comes after work? If you answered “more work,” you didn’t get the point. You probably need some rest.

More from Darius Foroux

This article was originally published on April 10, 2018, by Darius Foroux, and is republished here with permission.