Updated: Jul 9, 2019
This morning, my daughter and I drove to have her car's oil changed. She asked me to drive, even though she loves driving her car. When I asked her why, she said that she simply didn't feel like driving this morning. I took it at face value. However, when she insisted that I drive the car on our way back home, I had to ask her what was the real reason she didn't want to drive. Was it because I typically criticize her driving too much? Reluctantly, she acknowledged that was the real reason.
Let's put aside the role that my own feedback to her played in this interaction (so much better than taking the blame myself...) and focus on why she wouldn't give me that feedback initially. When I asked her why she didn't tell me the true reason at the beginning, she eventually admitted that it was because she didn't want to hurt my feelings.
Other than the fact that I wanted to share how well my wife and I raised her, I want to answer the question--when does enough feedback become too much feedback?
The willingness (more than the ability) to provide direct feedback is fundamental to the ability to hold constructive disagreement. It's the type of disagreement that is passionate, professional, but never personal. It's a true debate of conflicting ideas rather than conflicting personalities. In my research I found that avoiding disagreements, feeling uncomfortable disagreeing, or feeling that disagreements are unproductive are 10 times more likely in low trust environments than in high trust environments. More specifically, I found that the willingness to provide direct feedback (one of the three foundations for holding constructive disagreement) ranks 6 (on a 7-point scale) in high trust environments and only 3.4 in low trust environments.
This would suggest that you must provide direct feedback in order to build trust. But I also found that you might provide too much feedback. As I explained to my daughter, I would take pretty much any type of feedback that she could give me. I may not like it, but would not love her or trust her less. The level of trust we have is very high. However, I may not be willing to take the same feedback from someone else. Why?
First of all, there is a reciprocal relationship between trust and the willingness to provide feedback:
The more you provide me with direct feedback, the more I trust you. The less you provide me with feedback, or the less direct that feedback is (beating around the bush, not really saying what you mean, or giving me feedback through a third person), the less I trust you. On the other hand, as my research showed, the more I trust you, the more I'm willing to give you direct feedback, and also the more I'm receptive to direct feedback from you.
So what is the right level of feedback? Think of it as shown in the following chart:
The dotted line shows the relationship between the level of trust and the level of directness (and humor, and sarcasm) that is acceptable. You want to stay below the line, in the safe (green) zone. As long as you stay below the line, providing direct feedback will increase trust. However, the closer the level of feedback you provide is to the line (while still below it), the faster it will grow trust (see the light green arrow). The further the level of your feedback is below the line, the slower it will help developing trust.
If you provide too much feedback, above the line, you enter the danger (red) zone. You will hurt the level of trust if you provide too much or too direct feedback to someone who is not receptive enough to it. If you provide too direct a feedback, but relatively close to the line, you will hurt trust a little. But if you provide too direct a feedback too far from the line, you could destroy trust significantly.
As you can deduce from the chart, the same level of feedback directness could build or destroy trust, depending on the level of trust that already existed before feedback was offered. For the same level of trust, different levels of feedback directness can build, or destroy trust.
So what should you do? Provide as much and as direct feedback as is acceptable by the level of trust between you and the person who is getting that feedback. Not more, and preferably not less. That will assure that you will be building (instead of destroying) trust, and as fast as possible. And if you are not sure? Ask!