Honest Feedback Can Affect the Behavior of Supervisors

How powerful is feedback in the workplace? Did you know that it can affect the behavior of those in charge? In organizations, there are those who allocate resources and those who must accept what is allocated to them, be it office space, work assignments, or money. Past research paints a rather negative view of how those in charge (or “power-holders”) balance their self-interest with the interests of their subordinates. Previous research also seemed to show that those on the receiving end have little ability to affect outcomes.

However, there is some research that explains that certain factors can rein in an unbridled abuse of power. For example, feedback given from the subordinate to the power-holder may influence people with power to be more attentive to the interests of others. In this study (Oc, Bashshur, & Moore, 2014), researchers set up a series of cleverly devised studies where “subordinates” (really a computer program) gave feedback to power-holders (the actual participants), and then explored the behavioral effects.


The researchers were particularly interested in the way that the power-holders allocated resources after receiving feedback from their “subordinates.” The two types of feedback in the study were candid feedback and compliant feedback. Candid feedback meant that the power-holder received honest and fair criticism when subordinates were not happy with what was allotted to them. Compliant feedback meant positive feedback regardless of the equality of the allocations.

The researchers then explored behavioral trends which showed that when subordinates provided candid feedback about prior allocations of resources, power-holders acted markedly different to them in response, compared to how they treated the compliant subordinates. The candid feedback from subordinates seemed to influence the power-holders to restrain their inclinations toward self-interest, and they eventually distributed the resources more fairly over time. This type of feedback also seemed to activate a sense of moral self-control which helped keep power-holders relatively even-handed in their allocations rather than merely indulging in their self-interests.

Results also showed that in light of more negative feedback, the power-holders were more likely to feel guilty and as a result decrease the proportion of resources that they took for themselves. The reverse was true in situations where subordinates gave compliant feedback. In these situations, the power-holders did not seem to regulate their behavior. Over time, they tended to make allocations that only met their self-interests. 


These results highlight how subordinates do have some measure of personal control over how they are treated in the workplace. By speaking up rather than remaining silent, they can help ensure a fair distribution of resources. The results also show that by not allowing genuine feedback, or if subordinates give only compliant feedback, then those in power may be more likely to act in their own self-interest. This could negatively impact organizational outcomes. Organizations and those in leadership positions should seek to create platforms where individuals can give honest feedback and do not fear reprisals. This could be done through a mediator, or by using anonymous feedback methods.


Oc, B., Bashshur, M. R., & Moore, C. (2015). Speaking Truth to Power: The Effect of Candid Feedback on How Individuals with Power Allocate Resources. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 450-463.