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Courtesy Bias | Listen4Good

What is Courtesy Bias?

Courtesy bias is when someone overstates positive feedback and stays silent on negative feedback. 

This typically occurs in an unequal power relationship, when a client, understandably, is reticent to say something critical for fear of negative consequences.

Courtesy bias examples are relatively easy to find. For instance, a patient from a marginalized background may have received substandard treatment during a visit to a healthcare provider. Upon a return visit, out of a desire to be polite, they may state that their previous visit was wonderful. 

Or a client may fear offending a food bank and losing access to needed food if they complain about the quality or variety of the groceries offered.  

Courtesy Bias and Feedback 

When you gather feedback from clients, you will subsequently need to help clients get as comfortable as possible with providing honest and potentially critical feedback. 

To promote candor and overcome courtesy bias, an organization must first create spaces that encourage psychological safety when clients are responding to surveys or sharing their feedback.  

Even after doing this, organizations often have to institute multiple rounds of feedback and visibly do something with what they learn before they can really create a space of sustained safety and an environment of trust, in which clients feel comfortable providing critical feedback. 

Taking these steps is a process worth undertaking. The more clients trust you, the stronger and more authentic your feedback loop will be. Of course, you have to mean what you say, and also understand that your actions during and after the survey process will speak louder than words.

Importance of Overcoming Courtesy Bias

Courtesy bias can lead to an organization not receiving important, realistic feedback from the people it serves. But once you understand the psychology of courtesy bias, it becomes easier to create ways to both identify it and create systems to overcome it. 

Overcoming Courtesy Bias

There are a number of ways that organizations can help clients get comfortable during the feedback process to prevent or mitigate courtesy bias.  

Be explicit about how you will use the feedback

You have to be explicit about how you will use data and the ‘terms of engagement’ for clients, particularly for those who have been burned by providing feedback in the past. 

. Be clear and explicit that providing negative feedback will have no negative impact on their access to services. Say this multiple times as part of introducing your feedback process to clients – and mean it. . 

Be honest about the goals for gathering feedback

Be upfront about your goals for gathering feedback. Reassure your clients that you are not gathering feedback to get praise or get a grant; rather, you want to continuously improve based on their perspectives. 

Ask them what is working well, and what needs improvement, so that you can change or adjust accordingly. 

Actively ask for negative feedback

Clearly ask for negative feedback, as clients may feel more comfortable if you seek out this input directly. You can still celebrate the positive, but give special weight and space to seeking critical feedback. 

Often, If one person shares potentially negative feedback, there are usually others who share the same opinion, but who are reluctant to say it openly.

Gather anonymous feedback

Gather anonymous feedback when possible. Clients are more likely to share honest feedback – both positive and negative – if they know they cannot be identified. 

If you are unable to collect anonymous feedback by using a phone or video survey, you can mitigate courtesy bias by making sure that the client does not have a relationship with the person calling (i.e., the caller is not the staff member or volunteer who works directly with the client). Additionally, train your callers to have a neutral, friendly tone and to stick to the script. 

Feedback Resources

Listen4Good offers a number of free resources, including tools and frameworks, short primers on feedback, articles, and white papers. Be sure to check them out here