10 min read

Five Reasons People Don't Give Feedback

Without good feedback mechanisms, systems cannot discover or address their flaws, and they become dysfunctional.
A feedback screen in a toilet reading "Good afternoon, please rate our toilet" with options from 'excellent' to 'very poor'.
Instant feedback by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner. CC BY-SA 2.0.

In my last post, I talked about how all systems have flaws, and how these flaws require interpretive labor to be patched or worked around so that the system can keep running. These systems become dysfunctional when it is hard or impossible to learn from that interpretive labor what those flaws are. Without good feedback mechanisms, none of the flaws will be fixed, and the system will not adapt to changes.

In an ideal system, the people doing most of the interpretive labor—the front-line workers, the power users, etc—also participate in designing and adapting the system. Feedback flows naturally in a setup like this, because people inhabit both roles, interpretive laborer and designer, and their experience directly informs their decisions.

In less ideal but still relatively functional systems, information about the need for interpretive labor is successfully passed, through feedback, to designers and decision-makers who can improve the system. When that feedback starts getting blocked is where you really run into trouble.

So I thought I'd make a post about some of the reasons people might not give feedback—or why their feedback might not make its way to people who can act on it.

Reason 1: Fear of Retaliation

Let's start with a case study I've mentioned several times before. When General Motors lost market share to Toyota, they started trying to learn from it. But while they copied Toyota's Andon cord, a feedback mechanism, they failed to copy the cultural practices that encouraged workers to use it. Instead they dismissed workers who pulled the Andon cord and halted the production line as lazy slackers. Fearing these negative judgments from their managers, workers didn't use the cord.

Matthew Desmond, in his book Evicted, explains that tenants generally have protection from retaliation when they report unsanitary or unsafe housing conditions. But tenants who are behind on rent lack those protections, meaning many of the most unpleasant and dangerous situations go unreported. Since tenants who struggle to make rent are more likely than other tenants to live in low quality housing, this represents a substantial problem going unfixed in part because of poor incentives for feedback.

Ongoing abuse in the National Women's Soccer League (also covered here before) persisted for so long in part because players feared retaliation. The coaches who were abusing them often held players' careers in their hands.

I've had my own experiences with this. A few months after graduating college, I was asked to give a statement about a professor whose contract was up for renewal. I wanted to recommend against. The professor had advised me on an experiment where a trivial mistake ruined the samples I'd collected. That wasn't the issue. My diary records the real problem:

I sent her a very conciliatory e-mail over break, where I suggested we sit down and talk before continuing, that we discuss my expectations of her and her expectations of me. I got her reply this morning: "How dare you blame me! I expect an apology before we continue together."

[Other professor who I asked for advice] says sometimes you have to bite your tongue. It's preparation for grad school and work where often your fate is in the hands of someone who just plain doesn't deserve it. He says to do what I can to smooth things over, figure out "how much you have to prostrate yourself", and if things get worse, then we can think about more drastic measures.

I bit my tongue and smoothed things over with the professor, but I wanted to give the college feedback on what had happened. Only they refused to let me speak anonymously, and I needed the professor's glowing recommendation for my grad school applications. I had another friend in the exact same situation. Neither of us gave feedback on the professor, and her contract was renewed.

There are some institutions that work to overcome the fear of retaliation, including legal protections for whistleblowers and labor organizers, but these tend to be used in fairly extreme situations. If you want your organization to get good feedback, think about whether people have any reason to fear retaliation and, if so, how your organization can proactively prevent it. Steps you can take include: anonymizing feedback, having an independent organization handle serious reports, and making sure people's careers aren't controlled by a single person.

Reason 2: Fear of Ruining the Vibe

A friend of mine offered another reason why people might not give feedback: because they're afraid to ruin or disrupt an experience others are enjoying.

He gave an example from the kink community. Some of you may be familiar with safewords. These are specially chosen words that allow people in a scene to give feedback to their partners about whether they want to stop a specific activity, or stop the scene altogether. But kink scenes sometimes take place in community spaces, where multiple scenes are happening at once. So there is an additional option, the "mayday" call, which is meant to stop all the scenes in the space. One can imagine the hesitation a person might feel before using it!

In her article, What I Learned In Avalanche School, Heidi Julavits describes a course she took about avalanche preparedness. They were warned about many different mental traps, including the Acceptance Trap, "the desire not to be seen as a fool by others". On one day of the training, the avalanche advisory "predicted 'avalanche problems' that would produce slides both 'very large' and 'likely.'” Despite this, and despite being recently trained on the Acceptance Trap, the group went out anyway. "I felt a snag of dread but talked myself out of it," Julavits says. (They were fine, but that same day another skier died in an avalanche elsewhere in the region.)

Giving feedback about problems often feels, subjectively, like causing problems. When people experience microaggressions, they have to decide whether to give feedback to the person who—often unintentionally—caused the harm. Sometimes people decide not to give feedback because they're afraid they'll be retaliated against (see Reason 1), but it can also feel like naming a microaggression will hurt the relationship or just make things awkward.

It can seem like an organization with no conflict is a healthy one, but a healthier organization has visible conflict that is dealt with in healthy, productive ways. As I wrote in a previous post, In Defense of Conflict and Inefficiency, a lack of conflict is often the result of a false consensus. Silence can mean consent, but it can also mean people are stifling their feedback.

Whether people are worried about killing the mood, ruining plans, or hurting someone's feelings, there are some things organizations can do to encourage speaking up.

First, as discussed in the post on conflict, we can proactively seek out and elevate dissenting perspectives.

We can also encourage role-modeling. By this I mean making sure that visible or high status people demonstrate and thus normalize speaking up about problems.

And finally, we can practice speaking out. We can identify situations where social pressure is likely to override the desire to give feedback, and practice giving feedback anyway. Even reading out a script or playacting can help, as silly as it seems. We practice free throws and crossword puzzles and programming—why not practice giving feedback?

Reason 3: Giving Feedback is Time-Consuming, Difficult, or Pointless

There is a great scene in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which Arthur Dent, whose home is about to be demolished, explains why he wasn't able to register his negative feedback about this proposal:

I felt a similar sort of exasperation and anger when attempting to report Code of Conduct violations at a H.O.P.E Conference nearly a decade ago. The initial violation was a man taking photographs of the "women at H.O.P.E." meetup (photography was banned at the conference); over the course of my attempts to report, several additional women shared violations with me, including being touched inappropriately. The barriers to giving feedback were as follows:

  • The Code of Conduct said that you could report violations by calling the number posted around the conference, but there was no such number posted.
  • When we approached a volunteer staff member, they were clearly not trained in taking reports, despite being a supervisor. They asked us to give our reports in the middle of a crowded expo hall, and did not take notes of any kind.
  • The staff member we talked to had no clue how to fix the situation. We suggested they add the hotline number directly to the conference website, that they email the attendee mailing list sharing it, and that they actually post the flyers that their Code of Conduct promised. They agreed to do all of these things.
  • They didn't do any of those things.

The underlying problem, I would come to learn, was that the Code of Conduct was a new and controversial addition to the conference. There had been little work on actually implementing a reporting process, in part because members of the community were resisting it. The result was a half-assed, confusing system that did more harm than good, because it wasted the time and burned up the goodwill of those trying hardest to make the conference safer.

Something similar happened at a General Motors plant in New Jersey, when management attempted to collect feedback and then didn't use it:

Workers had been told that their suggestions would be welcomed and received training in Statistical Process Control. The workers responded by providing a flood of suggestions and by filling out charts tracking key quality metrics. However, management had not assigned  anyone respond to the suggestions, or examine the data the workers had carefully collected. The workers soon reverted to past patterns, feeling betrayed and much less interested in participating in future experiments.

People will not keep engaging in a broken feedback process forever. Goodwill will burn up and trust will be lost. A bad feedback system is worse than no feedback system at all.

(This is sometimes the point, of course. As Abigail Thorne explains, broken systems can serve as a performance that allows organizations to feel as though they are addressing an issue without actually addressing it. She quotes Sara Ahmed: "Many practitioners and academics have expressed concerns that writing documents or having good policies becomes a substitute for action: as one of my interviewees puts it, 'you end up doing the document rather than doing the doing'.)

Negative feedback about the feedback system itself should be treated as an urgent issue. After all, feedback systems are vital organizational infrastructure.

If the problems with your feedback system are serious enough, it's worth asking: is this doing more harm than good?

Reason 4: Fear of Damaging the Organization

People sometimes worry that negative feedback will damage the organization. This is an especially toxic trap when there are no good internal feedback channels. People are then left with the option of "going public", and exposing the organization's flaws to outsiders, not all of whom will have the organization's best interests at heart.

A dynamic like this has played a role in the ongoing abuse in women's soccer:

[Soccer coach and sports psychologist Courtney Levinsohn] says women feel isolated in American soccer because there have already been two leagues that have failed. Players tend to internalize the message that they shouldn’t rock the boat or they will sink the NWSL.

“No one wants to be the one who ruins it all. There’s a team dynamic that happens that is very unique to women’s soccer because the psychological game is to make us think it’s fragile, when it’s not, but we all felt it,” Levinsohn says. “It’s a part of the Kool-Aid and for so long it’s been ‘I’ll take what I can get as long as I can keep playing.’”

You can also see this dynamic arise in movements and cause-based organizations. Criticizing the organization is seen as hurting the cause.

In my misadventures trying to report CoC violations at H.O.P.E., I was able learn as much as I did about their broken system because I posted about it to a massive women in tech mailing list, asking for help contacting the organizers. I did this without caring if it hurt H.O.P.E.'s reputation. Someone who did care might not have spoken so publicly, and they also might not have gotten the email addresses of the conference organizers to whom they could send a laundry list of complaints. (I don't know if the organizers did anything with my complaints, but at least they got them!)

Note that if you have strong internal feedback mechanisms, a willingness to criticize in public isn't necessary. But public criticism can be an escape hatch—a way for feedback to be given even when the systems for receiving it fail.

Cause-based organizations and those who inspire strong loyalty thus have a special obligation to make sure their internal systems are healthy. They should know that people will be less likely to speak out publicly against them and treat that as a weakness, rather than a strength.

Reason 5: It's Easier Just to Leave

I will conclude my story about trying to give feedback to the H.O.P.E. conference by saying I don't know how it ends. I never went back to H.O.P.E. I don't know if their process improved.

The people most impacted by problems with your organization are the people most likely to leave if they can. People don't like problems!

Now, sometimes people leave because an organization isn't the right fit for them. Even if everything were working perfectly, they'd be unhappy. It can be tempting to lump everyone who leaves into this group, but at least some of them would be a good fit for your ideal organization. It is the fact that they are a good fit for your ideal organization that makes them notice all the ways in which your organization is not ideal. These are the most valuable community members you have.

Obviously it's better to address problems before people reach the point of quitting, but even once they've quit, there are often opportunities like exit interviews or customer experience surveys to understand why they're leaving. Unfortunately a lot of organizations don't implement processes like these, or if they do, the results are discarded.

I recommend going over exit interviews and any other data about why people are leaving at the highest level of decision-making in the organization. Incorporate it into discussions around design, planning, and vision. Each time, ask the question: did this person have a different vision than us? Or do they think we're failing to live up to the vision we share?

There are, of course, other reasons why feedback may not be circulating correctly in your organization, but these are five of the biggest. Attending to these should be a no-brainer in any group that has both the resources and the sincere desire to improve.

Edited to add (June 14th, 2023):

This blog post by Sarah Mei from 2015 illustrates just how major problems can go unreported, in an echo of my own experience with HOPE:

'At these conferences, I regularly received unwanted and very persistent attention from other attendees. Sometimes from speakers. Sometimes from organizers. Most of the time it was merely annoying. A few times it was profoundly alienating. But twice, it was absolutely terrifying.

That was harassment – all of it, even at the annoying level. I never reported any of it. Stories I heard from women who had reported similar incidents dissuaded me. When they were told about sexual imagery in slides and aggressive come-ons and being cornered at parties and offensive t-shirts and anonymous ass grabs and that guy who wouldn’t stop following me around, conference organizers just said, “If you’re uncomfortable, you can leave.”'