When someone asks for your opinion, are you quick to offer it? Or do you opt instead for a laid-back “it’s your call,” a noncommittal “anything’s fine,” or an eager-to-please “whatever works best for you”?
Many of us intentionally withhold our preferences in an attempt to appear easygoing and amiable. Especially in a workplace context, we may assume that being less opinionated can help us make a good impression on our peers, employees, or managers. But through three large-scale research projects that explored a wide range of interpersonal situations with a total of more than 7,000 participants, we found that failing to weigh in can actually make you seem less likable and harm your relationships.
Easygoing Isn’t Likable
In our first research project, we looked at how people reacted when asking a friend or acquaintance what restaurant, movie, or museum they’d prefer to go to. No matter the context, the participants almost always told us that they wanted their companion to pick a specific option — and when their companion chose not to (which they often did, out of a desire to seem easygoing), the participants found their counterparts less likable, and they became less interested in initiating future outings with them.
Why is this? You might think that withholding your preferences makes you more likable, but in fact, when someone asks for your input, they’re generally looking for help making a decision. Our participants consistently reported that it was harder for them to make a decision when their friend refused to express an opinion, and this unpleasant decision-making experience often harmed their impression of their friend.
No Opinion Implies a Negative Opinion
Another reason withholding a preference can backfire is that when someone claims not to care, it can seem like they actually do have an opinion, but are hiding it to avoid conflict. In our second research project, we found that when someone says they don’t have a preference, the decision maker often assumes they’re only saying that because they have the opposite preference as they do. When this happens, the decision maker is more likely to choose the option that they themselves don’t want (because they assume that’s what their counterpart really prefers), ultimately making them that much less satisfied with the interaction.
Staying Silent Can Be Dehumanizing
Clearly, keeping quiet when a friend or coworker is seeking your input can be counterproductive. But what about situations in which no one is relying on your feedback to make a decision?
In our third research project, we looked at what happens when people are simply asked to express a general preference, rather than to weigh in on a joint decision. We had participants read about a fictional person who was either indifferent or shared an opinion when asked about their favorite food or type of music, and then we asked the participants to share their impressions of that person. Consistently, people who shared an opinion — whether positive or negative — came across as having more of an individual, distinct identity, while those who withheld their opinions seemed robotic and less human. Moreover, in one study, we found that this negative effect can even extend to evaluations of someone’s work: Participants were shown identical pictures of a room, but when they were told that the interior designer who had designed it had failed to express a preference about his favorite food or music, they rated the room’s design less positively than when they were told it was designed by someone who was willing to share their personal preferences.
Effective Managers Encourage — and Model — Healthy Self-Expression
Driven by a desire to be helpful, minimize conflict, and contribute to a collaborative workplace, employees and managers alike are sometimes reluctant to share their personal preferences or provide opinions on joint decisions. But our research demonstrates how this approach can actually harm relationships, making people come across as less effective and less likable.
To address these challenges, managers should take steps to encourage healthy self-expression on their teams. In one study, we found that people are twice as likely to share their preferences if the decision maker explicitly says that they don’t want to make the choice on their own — so as a manager, even just clearly communicating that you would like to hear everyone’s opinion before making a decision can substantially increase the chances that people will open up.
Managers can also set up dedicated events or digital channels for employees to share their hobbies, tastes, and opinions on various topics, and they can conduct team-building exercises to address common misconceptions and help people become more comfortable telling people about their preferences. In some cases, it may make sense to administer surveys before or after meetings to proactively solicit input from employees who might be nervous to speak up in the moment, and for customer-facing roles, managers may also consider explicitly encouraging employees to voice their opinions with clients, as this may boost perceptions of likability and help them build stronger connections.
But most importantly, managers and executives must model open communication themselves. Especially for senior leaders who may struggle to stay connected to on-the-ground workers, openly sharing their preferences can help combat perceptions that they are aloof or lacking in humanity. Indeed, rather than alienating employees, our research suggests that expressing an opinion — even if it’s one that people disagree with — can help leaders come across as more human, more competent, and more likable. This will both improve their own relationships with colleagues across their organizations and normalize the expression of personal preferences for employees who might otherwise be inclined to stay silent.
So next time someone asks you what you think, don’t hold back. Our research demonstrates that respectfully and honestly expressing your preferences both helps the person who’s seeking your feedback and makes you come across as more likable. Whether it’s a friend asking where you’d like to go to eat, a client who’s curious what kinds of music you like, or a colleague requesting your input on a workplace decision, the data shows that sharing your opinion is almost always a win-win.
Courtesy Harvard Business Review. By Alixandra Barash, Kaitlin Woolley, and Peggy J. Liu. Article available here.