Leader agreeableness can stifle team reflexivity by weakening the impact of constructive feedback, the study found

New research suggests that business leaders may want to limit their agreeableness when providing constructive feedback. The study, published in personality and individual differencesproves that warm and friendly leaders tend to provide less effective feedback to their team.

“I am interested in team effectiveness. Most of today’s work in organizations is done by teams, but high-performing teams are not the norm,” said study author Jean-François Harvey, associate professor at HEC Montréal and co-author of Extreme Teaming.

“Leadership is a key factor in determining whether or not teams will be effective, and feedback is one of the most important tools leaders have to influence team performance. So I thought we should consider personality traits of the leader and how these can influence the impact of their feedback on their team, starting with Agreeableness – the personality trait with the highest variability of the Big Five.”

“Affective individuals have a behavioral tendency to subordinate various egocentric emotions, such as frustration or despair, in favor of other-oriented, empathetic expressions of support or prosocial behavior (i.e., empathy, forgiveness).”

Harvey and his research team conducted two studies to examine how agreeableness affects feedback and performance on team tasks.

In the first study, 182 adults were asked to provide actionable feedback to a cover letter writer and then a personality assessment was conducted. The researchers used text analysis software to identify the proportion of words in the feedback submissions associated with positive and negative emotions and found that a person’s level of agreeableness was linked to the emotional tone of the feedback they provided .

For their second study, the researchers collected data from 517 salespeople and 53 sales team leaders who worked for a financial services company in Canada.

The team leaders provided information on how much constructive feedback they had given their team and completed a tolerance measurement. Team members provided information about the team’s reflexivity, or the extent to which they reviewed their approach to their work, and discussed the methods used to ‘get the job done’. Teams were also evaluated on their ability to generate new ideas to improve performance, develop reasonable plans for implementing new ideas, and find new ways to accomplish work tasks.

Team leaders who provided more constructive feedback tended to have team members who reported higher levels of reflexivity. In turn, teams with greater reflexivity tended to perform better. Importantly, the researchers found that the link between constructive feedback and increased team reflexivity was particularly strong for teams with more uncomfortable leaders.

“We show that agreeableness reinforces the positive emotional tone a person uses when giving constructive feedback. Then, in a second study, we show that the constructive feedback from highly likable leaders is less effective than that of less likable ones: the feedback from the former doesn’t push their team to think about their work, which stimulates performance,” Harvey told PsyPost .

“In other words, tone can make the meaning of feedback ambiguous and the intentions of the feedback giver can be difficult to decipher. Therefore, very personable leaders should be aware of their tendency to use a positive emotional tone when providing constructive feedback.”

“That doesn’t mean being unsympathetic in general – sympathy has benefits, such as: E.g. creating strong social bonds and building quality relationships – but being aware of the influence of the facet of one’s personality when giving constructive feedback,” Harvey explains.

But the study, like all research, comes with some caveats.

“We don’t consider team member characteristics and only tested our theory with sales teams,” Harvey said. “Some individuals may be particularly interested in taking the cues from any type of feedback and starting a conversation that stimulates reflexivity in their team. In addition, future research should examine both executive agreeableness and feedback dynamics in other contexts.”

“Agreement has been shown to positively impact leadership effectiveness when effectiveness is defined through affective and relational dimensions, but not when defined in terms of execution and performance,” he added. “The study helps explain why that is.”

The study “Constructive Feedback: When Leader Agreeableness Stifles Team Reflexivity” was authored by Jean-François Harvey and Paul Green Jr.

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