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Max performance feedback

By Golnaz Sadri and Sophia Seto

Executive Summary
Research shows that giving no feedback at all is always detrimental. And both negative and positive feedback, when delivered well, can improve performance. But each has its dangers, and feedback, good or bad, should be presented within a framework of established goals and be directed toward goal-oriented behavior that the recipient can control. 

Consider this scenario: Alvin is an aspiring logistics manager who recently started working at BAC Distribution. One afternoon, a client calls to request overnight delivery of shirts for an upcoming trade show. The request is urgent, as the client forgot to call the manufacturer and BAC Distribution the week before to submit the request. Alvin decides to work a few hours of overtime because he is determined to get the items packaged and ready for delivery the next day.
Due to the short notice, Alvin was not able to use the Gildan 50 percent cotton/50 percent polyester shirts typically used for this client’s orders. However, Alvin found Gildan 100 percent cotton shirts in the warehouse that other clients often told him were of equal or superior quality to the cotton/polyester blend. This information was disclosed to the client at the time of delivery and no additional expense was charged. Alvin believed he did well in providing a solution for the client in the short time frame.

The client, however, thought the change compromised standards. In a meeting with his manager, Alvin heard the words “disappointment” and “embarrassing.” Alvin feels deflated by his manager’s comments. He thinks that his proactive, hard work was not acknowledged. He wonders if he is capable of doing his job or if his efforts are likely to be acknowledged in the future.

The above scenario involving Alvin is not uncommon. We all are affected by what others think of us. Unfortunately, comments generally are given when someone has something negative rather than something positive to say. One survey of managers found that feedback received tends to average about 20 percent positive to 80 percent negative. The statistic is surprising, especially when these managers think they performed well in 75 percent to 90 percent of their work.

The importance of the response

So what is feedback and why is it important in the workplace?

Feedback is a response to an action or situation from one individual (the source) to another individual (the recipient). The information transferred generally regards the recipient and can be essential as motivation or a device to detect errors. Feedback is also important because it gives an individual a sense of competence and provides direction on how to maintain or improve performance. However, feedback currently is not being used optimally in the workplace. In fact, in a WorkUSA 2004 survey, 43 percent of employees reported thinking that they don’t get enough guidance to improve their performance. Since individual performance ultimately translates into organizational performance, how much one receives and responds to feedback can be effective in promoting or preventing company success.

According to D.R. Ilgen, C.D. Fisher and S.M. Taylor in the Journal of Applied Psychology, “The process through which a worker receives performance feedback consists of several steps, including: Feedback is transmitted → feedback is received → feedback is accepted → recipient desires and intends to respond → recipient responds.” It is clear from this model that an employee has to be receptive to the feedback as well as have a desire to use the information received in order for the feedback to be effective. However, everyone responds to feedback differently. The following explores reactions to different feedback types (positive, negative and no response) while working to understand how these reactions are influenced by the following factors: characteristics of feedback recipient and source and structure of the feedback. By analyzing these key factors, a more effective feedback environment where individuals have role clarity, goal-setting tools and continuous learning can be developed to maximize worker performance.

Types of feedback

  • Positive feedback. Positive feedback has an encouraging effect on worker performance. It has been shown that individuals generally recall positive feedback more precisely than negative feedback and view it as more accurate because this information is more pleasant and helps enhance one’s self-image. However, consistent positive feedback may hinder performance because the recipients may become complacent with their work since they always receive high marks.
  • Negative feedback. Negative feedback, on the other hand, often connotes failure. Negativity tends to be rejected simply because of the unwillingness of the individual to accept unfavorable information. While recipients may be quick to accept credit when receiving positive feedback, recipients of negative feedback who are not receptive to the information may be quick to deflect blame onto other individuals or attribute it to an external factor. Negative feedback often generates hurt feelings that cause individuals to provide an explanation for the lower performance. However, in some instances, the recipient of negative feedback may feel the need to improve his behavior in order to avoid negative feedback in the future. Although the individual may perform better as a result of the negative feedback, he might not perform the desired behavior if not provided with guidance.
  • No response feedback. On the other hand, some may argue that the presence of feedback itself, whether positive or negative, can improve performance, while the absence of feedback is really what hurts individual work performance. A study of 243 hospitality employees by T.R. Hinkin and C.A. Schriesheim in Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly found that the absence of feedback was detrimental to those who were performing well and those who were not. Imagine putting in extra hours of work only to receive the same recognition as others who perform only the minimum level required. On the other end of the spectrum, a lower performing individual is given no indication to improve or change his behavior, only to be surprised when reprimanded later on. In both scenarios, the result is job dissatisfaction and lower job performance.

The above information suggests that the absence of feedback is always detrimental to employee performance while the presence of feedback serves to motivate and encourage (positive feedback) as well as helps employees stop performing incorrect behaviors (negative feedback). Since the purpose of feedback is to motivate and inform, we suggest that the ratio of positive to negative information that an individual receives is very important. Three positives followed by one negative is a good ratio. Where performance levels are low but the employee is trying hard, managers can start the feedback session by acknowledging the employee’s effort and desire to do well and then introduce the areas required for improvement. It is also important to prioritize the needed improvements for employees, giving them one or two areas to improve upon at a time to ensure that the feedback is perceived as manageable and not overwhelming.

Characteristics of feedback recipient and source

One of the major contributors to how feedback is received is the feedback recipient. Prior studies have focused on an individual’s self-esteem, as well as her ability to devise self-set goals. Self-esteem can have a major impact on how an individual might perceive negative feedback. R.C. Liden and T.R. Mitchell conducted a study of undergraduates, published in the Academy of Management Journal, in which students answered questions about a hypothetical scenario in which they received negative feedback from a professor after failing an exam. Students were given questionnaires to discuss their reactions to the feedback and how they felt it would affect their behavior for future exams. When poor performance was attributed to internal causes, students reported that they did not intend to study harder for the final exam. Based on this study, we suggest that workers with low self-esteem are more likely to react to negative feedback with thoughts that they are doing unsatisfactory work due to incompetence and think that additional effort would not garner improved performance.

On the other hand, some studies have shown that negative feedback can be detrimental to those with high self-esteem as well. Those with high self-esteem have their own expectations and perceptions of their performance. They likely will not accept feedback that is inconsistent with their self-image in an attempt to salvage their self-esteem and sense of competence. As a result, negative feedback is seen as inaccurate and performance levels fall. Therefore, negative feedback that is not viewed as credible and is not accepted or integrated with a person’s self-assessed performance can be damaging to an individual’s performance whether the individual has high or low self-esteem.

Still, sometimes negative feedback can be beneficial. Those who have established self-set goals may use this information to fix problems and improve and are likely to seek the feedback themselves. In fact, S. Ashford and L. Cummings in Organizational Behavior and Human Performance suggest that “feedback seeking should enhance performance by facilitating the achievement of goals, by helping individuals discern the relative importance of multiple goals, and by providing information that assists individuals in evaluating their competence.” So although the information received may generate hurt feelings at first, those with self-set goals realize the importance of hearing about their poor performance in order to prevent repeat poor performance. In addition, individuals with self-set goals seek feedback when they are uncertain of their performance in order to generate information that can lead to improvement. Thus, negative feedback can be an important tool in performance improvement by informing recipients of potential areas of weakness.

In summary, negative feedback could hamper the recipient’s self-image and performance whether he has high or low self-esteem. Studies show that negative feedback can be detrimental to individuals with low self-esteem (due to feelings of incompetence) and high self-esteem (due to feelings of inaccuracy). But negative feedback benefits those with self-set goals because it provides information about what steps will improve performance. Thus, it is important that feedback be presented within a framework of established goals and that the feedback be directed toward goal-oriented behavior that is under the control of the recipient as opposed to behavior that is either unrelated to established goals and/or behavior that is not under the control of the recipient.

While the characteristics of the feedback recipient are important in determining how feedback is received, another factor is the source of the feedback. Feedback is also more likely to be accepted if the source of feedback is reliable, credible and in agreement with the recipient regarding performance attributions. To this end, managers should rate employees only on performance aspects that they observe directly and involve other organizational stakeholders in the feedback process through the use of 360-degree feedback.

Feedback from a credible or trustworthy source is seen as more accurate since recipients perceive the source as possessing the expertise required to judge behavior accurately. So although there is a discrepancy between the recipients’ self-perception and the sources’ feedback, recipients may start to see that there is some truth to the information. The realization by recipients that they need to improve will allow them to make appropriate adjustments to their behavior.
One way to raise the perceived credibility of the source of feedback is to have raters assess an individual only on those aspects of performance they observe directly. Thus, while traditionally managers were the sole evaluators of an employee’s performance, 360-degree feedback is becoming more common in today’s workplace. This type of plan provides feedback from the employee’s full circle of daily contacts. This group might include the employee’s superiors, direct manager, subordinates, peers, clients, suppliers as well as the employee’s self-ratings. Managers should confirm the list of daily contacts with their employees to ensure that the list is comprehensive and creates the best opportunity to access important performance feedback. An additional advantage of 360-degree feedback is that it gives the employee an opportunity to provide feedback about others, which helps everybody buy into the feedback process.

In addition to who gives the feedback, there is evidence that individuals react positively to feedback when both the source and the recipient agree on the reasons for high or low performance. Reasons are either due to personal factors (e.g., ability and/or effort) or environmental factors (e.g., luck and/or the situation). In a study by B.D. Bannister in the Journal of Applied Psychology, 149 undergraduate business students were asked to participate in an experiment that required them to map three different truck routes that would maximize cargo while limiting mileage. After each round, individuals were provided with a report that indicated their performance results and suggested improvements. After seeing their performance results, participants answered questionnaires asking whether they felt their activity results were due to personal or environmental factors and how accurate they perceived the comments to be.

In instances where the recipient of the feedback believed that poor performance was due to environmental factors while the source believed the performance was due to personal factors, there was a discrepancy. Bannister found that the discrepancy increased the likelihood that the feedback was not taken seriously and likely was ignored in subsequent rounds. In contrast, if both the source and the recipient agreed on the cause of low performance, the recipient was more likely to trust the source and be more receptive to criticism. Therefore, we suggest that when the information provided to an employee is believed to be truthful and valid, the person receiving the feedback is more likely to make a change.

Feedback structure

In their book Developing Management Skills, D.A. Whetten and K.S. Cameron provide eight rules for effective team feedback, which we suggest generalizes to feedback across all levels within the organization.

The first rule is to focus on behaviors that individuals can control rather than focusing on personality attributes that are less tangible. For example, “You were 15 minutes late to the meeting” is more effective than “You are careless about your work.” The second rule is to rely on direct observations as opposed to inferences when providing feedback. Related to this, rule No. 3 suggests that feedback be descriptive (utilizing facts and objective data) rather than evaluative (utilizing right or wrong, good and bad statements). Details allow recipients to focus on specific areas rather than having them guess what, of the many things they do, need improvement. The fourth rule focuses on feedback specificity. Similar to details, specifics are helpful in making changes for future performance. Feedback specificity ensures that there is clarity in the information conveyed. Specifics let recipients know what is expected of them and help connect the sometimes complex relationship among effort, behavior and outcomes. It has been found that feedback, especially when negative, can be misinterpreted. Without truly understanding the feedback, the intended behavior will not happen. Thus, feedback specificity helps provide information about key areas to work on and eliminates misinterpretation by the recipient regarding cause, effect and behavior.

Rule No. 5 suggests that feedback focus on present behaviors rather than past behaviors. Past behaviors no longer can be changed, and focusing on them could negate any improvements that a person may have made in the interim. Rule No. 6 suggests that alternatives for improvement be discussed together so the recipient is involved in identifying changes and avenues for improvement. Seven, the amount of information provided in a feedback session needs to be geared to the needs of the feedback recipient. Too much information causes overload, and people stop listening, while too little information leads to frustration and misunderstanding. Finally, feedback should be provided at an appropriate time and place, providing privacy, as well as the opportunity for two-way communication.

Conclusion and recommendations

Feedback serves the dual roles of instructing and motivating and is invaluable for improving performance. Both positive and negative feedback, provided in an appropriate balance, can be beneficial in the workplace, while the absence of feedback is almost always detrimental.

Organizational context also is important. Organizations must properly introduce and establish a formal feedback program so that all units will participate. The importance of feedback and participation should be stressed to eliminate feelings of bias (both favorable and unfavorable). Knowing that all employees receive feedback will eliminate thoughts such as “Am I the only one getting these kind of comments? Am I being punished?” This also allows the associates to think more about their actions and resulting consequences, their areas of improvement and their thoughts on how processes can be improved to assist their performance.

It is also pertinent to set expectations for the parties involved so they are comfortable with, and accept, the idea of feedback. Since units across the organization operate in different ways, human resources should give guidelines and tips for each unit. It should be understood that feedback given to employees who work in settings that require heavy interactions with others will focus on interpersonal (soft) skills. On the other hand, groups that focus on production work should expect feedback to focus primarily on technical (hard) skills before honing soft skills. Such differentiation can help guide feedback providers to the areas they should focus on.

Units can decide how frequently they should meet to provide feedback. It makes sense for feedback frequency to match the unit’s work cycle. For example, quality control units may look at monthly figures to determine how well the individual and the company are progressing. As such, feedback sessions should coincide with this monthly cycle. On the other hand, some engineering projects take several months to complete. Feedback in those departments might be once per quarter or even twice a year, depending on the ease of collecting the information required to provide feedback. Keep in mind that feedback should help, and the process should run smoothly and not create a burden for those involved in giving and receiving the feedback.

The roles of the superior and the subordinates in their feedback sessions need to be clear. While the first feedback session may be used for the superior to set up the protocol for subsequent feedback sessions, create a collaborative climate early. The initial feedback session might serve to eliminate confusion for those who are not accustomed to feedback or may be accustomed to a different style of feedback, such as those from a different organizational or national culture. The introductory meeting also gives the superior the opportunity to gauge the job motivation of the employee and to set or adjust goals as necessary. It creates a chance for both parties to discuss and establish goals for the next feedback session. Openness and honesty should be stressed. Feedback sessions would best be utilized as developmental opportunities for those involved in the feedback process as well as serving to benefit the company’s long-run success.

It is important to note that feedback needs to be received from a reliable and credible source who is open-minded about discussing the reasons for both good and poor performances. Two-way communication helps eliminate misunderstandings and gives recipients a voice in how to achieve higher performance in the future. The feedback should allow the recipient to analyze what should have been done and what can be done differently, rather than focus on what went wrong. In addition, feedback should not solely concentrate on negative statements that can be discouraging, but should also not solely be about positive statements meant to make an employee feel good.

Instead, feedback should be constructive by containing both areas of strengths and areas for improvement to maximize results. When providing areas for improvement, detailed feedback using examples helps recipients understand the situation and make behavioral adjustments. As long as feedback appears genuine and is detailed enough to provide balanced information, it can be an effective tool that creates a positive work environment where individuals have role clarity, goal-setting tools and continuous learning that leads to better job performance.

Golnaz Sadri is professor of organizational behavior at California State University, Fullerton. She received her Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the Victoria University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Sadri has published articles in various national and international journals, including the Journal of Vocational Behavior, Applied Psychology: An International Review and Journal of Managerial Psychology. She also has participated in various national and international conferences, including the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the Western Academy of Management and the National Academy of Management.

Sophia Seto is a senior accountant for an investment firm that practices performance feedback organizationwide. She received her bachelor’s degree in economics with minors in management and education from the University of California, Irvine, and her MBA from California State University, Fullerton. Previously, she worked as an associate teacher for an art studio.

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