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Has Feedback Lost its Way? The Case for Progress Instead

 

 

If you’ve read anything about feedback recently you are probably confused.  There is lots of conflicting information and disagreement on, among other things, whether feedback is helpful, what kind of feedback is best (negative or positive), what the object of feedback should be (strengths or weaknesses), and if employees even want feedback in the first place.  This mess makes it tough for supervisors looking for guidance on how to coach their employees and for HR professionals who train managers and design formal systems to manage performance and provide feedback.  This article looks critically at what we know about feedback from research and practice and introduces an alternative to feedback for facilitating performance—progress. 

 

 

The case against feedback

 

Most of us carry feedback devices in our pocket or even wear them on our wrists.  They tell us how many steps we’ve taken, if we’ve locked our car, if someone is at our door, or what our blood sugar levels are.  And we listen; we take the stairs, lock the car, get rid of the person at the door, and inject our insulin.  We pass radar speed signs on the road that tell us our speed, and most of us slow down appropriately.  Feedback works; there is little debate about the value of feedback in principle.  Organisms need to regulate themselves, they need feedback about their environments to survive.  Despite this common-sense appeal, feedback has a checkered track record in improving performance.  To quote from the most recent review by psychologists Avi Kluger and Angelo DeNisi: [1]

 

“Several feedback intervention (FI) researchers have recently recognized that FIs have highly variable effects on performance, such that in some conditions FIs improve performance, in other conditions FIs have no apparent effects on performance, and in yet others FIs debilitate performance.”

 

This record isn’t surprising given feedback in organizations frequently comes from managers, not machines.  Managers are not like smart phones or radar speed signs.  Decades of research shows that human beings have flaws, biases, idiosyncrasies and questionable motives that can interfere with the quality and value of the information they provide each other.  Human beings are good at many things, but they are flawed observers, recorders, and analyzers of their own experiences, let alone others’ experiences. [2]  Beyond the fact that feedback tends to be delivered by flawed human beings, there are several problems with feedback systems in organizations that contribute to this checkered track record of effectiveness.

 

 

Feedback tends to be negative

The concept of feedback comes from control theory.  It reflects a negative state—a gap between a goal and the current state. [3]  Feedback is something you get when you are “off-track.”  Managers carry this negative bias too, believing they are more effective managers when they are criticizing their employees. [4]  It isn’t surprising then that much of the feedback instruction supervisors get focuses on how to deliver negative feedback.  This bias makes sense given the dim view of employees held by the theories that underly our practices. [5]  These theories assume workers are lazy, unmotivated, and self-serving.  They behave instrumentally, exerting effort only when extrinsic rewards are at stake.  Workers are “immovable objects,” moving only when acted on by outside forces.  Motivation occurs through coercion and compliance.  And feedback is frequently pointed at weaknesses, which reinforces this negative bias. [6]  

 

What’s worse, negativity has become fashionable.  The ability to deliver and accept harsh, even brutal feedback is increasingly being celebrated.  This is referred to as radical transparency, made popular by Ray Dalio, CEO of Bridgewater Associates. [7]  This approach to feedback is based on 1940’s era linear models of communication where the manager knows the truth about the employee performance, he/she has a message to communicate to the employee, the message gets communicated, and is understood. [8]  Research also shows that negative feedback is more potent than positive feedback and is damaging to individual well-being, satisfaction and performance.[9]   This helps explain why employees are more likely to reject it. [10]

 

Feedback gets disconnected from the work and goals

This was a key indictment by Kluger and DeNisi.  They envisioned a hierarchy of feedback loops.  Loops at the top are more fundamental and relate to how people see themselves and their personal identity. Loops at the bottom are more tactical and relate to the work people are doing at the moment. They found that when feedback was focused at the bottom of this hierarchy, it was more effective, and when it was focused higher in this hierarchy, it was less effective. This was especially true when the feedback was negative, critical, or discouraging.  When feedback gets personal employees start thinking about themselves and they take their eyes off their day-to-day goals, and their work suffers.  

 

Feedback is tainted by performance evaluation and ratings

Feedback in a PM context “counts”, it is used to make and defend ratings.  Worst case, feedback is your rating or your scores on a 360-degree evaluation survey.  This context politicizes feedback.  Instead of helping employees achieve their goals, it becomes part of a game organizations play where employees compete for ratings and rewards.  Most employees are not happy with the feedback they get, and this context is part of the reason. [11]  Feedback in a PM context is also relative.  Performance goals are typically judged using relative standards, comparing employees to one another, hunger games style. [12]  Research shows this kind of feedback frequently hurts performance. [13]

 

Administrative realities of PM amplify these problems

The primary goal of PM is reward distribution. [14]  Reward budgets are limited, and since rewards are based on performance ratings, everyone can't get top ratings—it is a zero-sum game.  So, top ratings are rationed, and calibration and review meetings ensure compliance with rating targets.  And since the majority of employees believe they are above average [15], most are disappointed with their ratings and rewards at the end of the year.  Supervisors know this game and know they must start delivering negative messages early so employees aren’t surprised at the end of the year.  Performance management becomes a search for negative evidence to justify future ratings and rewards.

 

Employees don’t really want feedback

Although employees say they want feedback, they answer differently when they vote with their feet.   Research by economist Iwan Barankay polled people about their feedback preferences and then gave them the choice to do a job with or without feedback.  Although most said they wanted feedback, most chose the job without feedback (and those who took the job with feedback performed more poorly). [16]  Of course employees say they want feedback, it’s all they’ve known.  They have been graded at school, rated at work and liked on social media.  It’s like asking people if they like walking upright.  And since people think they are above average, they assume their feedback will be glowing.  Finally, if organizations are playing a game with employees, and there is a score, of course they want to know what it is.

 

Traditional feedback practices won’t work in the future

Feedback in organizations is an individual sport, but work is increasingly a team sport. [17]  In a team environment, it can be difficult to differentiate the behavior and contributions of individuals.  And assessing a gap between current behavior and expectations requires clear expectations and standards to begin with.  Because work is more complex and non-routine, and because job descriptions are becoming obsolete, these standards are increasingly difficult to establish, and they quickly become outdated as things change. [18]  Traditional feedback practices also depend on managers observing their staff.  This is becoming difficult given trends toward remote work, virtual teams, flatter organizations with larger spans of control, and increased use of contractors, partners, gig workers and other non-traditional workers.

 

 

The Case for Progress

 

Progress also has roots in control theory.  A feedback system involves multiple tests to detect a gap between the goal and current status.  Assume your goal is to lose 20 pounds before your high-school reunion.  If the initial test shows a gap (you are 20 pounds from your goal), you will take actions to reduce the gap (eat less and exercise more).  After implementing these actions, we need a second feedback system—a monitoring feedback loop—to compare results from the initial test with subsequent tests to see if the gap is shrinking.  The assessment of progress (toward goals) is an important part of this second feedback system.  

 

Progress is more important than feedback

Researchers who study this this second feedback system and goal progress refer to the rate at which the gap between the goal and current state is shrinking as velocity.  Research shows velocity (progress) is more important than the size of the discrepancy (feedback) in driving satisfaction, motivation, and performance. [19]

 

Progress keeps the focus where it should be--on goals

The effectiveness of goals in driving performance is one of the most well-supported findings in all of behavioral science.  However, for goals to work, people need feedback. [20]  Feedback is important only insofar as it provides evidence of progress. We don’t get on the scale every morning because it’s fun to see what we weigh. We get on the scale every morning to see if we are progressing toward our reunion weight-loss goal.  Feedback should not be disconnected from goals, and progress keeps the focus on goals.  While this distinction sounds subtle, it is important.  If we want to help employees achieve their goals, we need to help them make progress, not just give them feedback.  A common solution proposed to improve feedback is to crowdsource it, getting more people involved.  Aside from getting more flawed people involved in the process, one problem with this solution is the lack of a goal filter.  The people who give you feedback may not know your goals.  Coaches understand this point well.  It is difficult to coach anyone without first knowing what they are trying to achieve.

 

Progress drives engagement, satisfaction, and performance

Teresa Amabile from Harvard was an early advocate for progress.  She studied the psychological experiences of employees as they worked, which she called “inner work life.”  Employees completed daily diaries describing how they felt and how engaged they were each day.  They also described their daily work activities and the emotions, perceptions, and motivations associated with these activities. When she compared employees’ best and worst days, she found that when employees describe their best days, they talked about progress they had made, and when they described their worst days, they talked about the setbacks they encountered. The experience of progress was an important element of inner work life. When people made progress, they reported more positive emotions, they were motivated by the work itself, and they saw the work and their teams in a more favorable light.  And not surprisingly, teams that experienced more progress and more positive emotions performed better.  [21]

 

Progress drives positivity, which drives success

Research by Amabile and other psychologists highlight the importance of positive emotions and their connection to progress.  Positive emotions are important for wellbeing, engagement, satisfaction, and performance.  People who are more positive feel better and do better.  I know what you’re thinking, doesn’t the causal arrow go the other way? Doesn’t success make people feel better?  Research by Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues shows that happiness is associated with and precedes many positive outcomes. [22]  And progress is important for positive emotions.  People interpret and evaluate day-to-day events that happen to them through a goal filter—appraising how they affect their goals.   Events that facilitate progress produce positive emotions, and events that block or hinder progress lead to negative emotions.  These emotions in turn affect well-being, satisfaction, and performance. [23]  

 

This operates as a virtuous cycle where progress toward our goals makes us happier and more engaged and these positive emotions in turn give us the energy to work harder and take on more goals, leading to additional success.  It also operates as a vicious cycle, where obstacles and setbacks create negative feelings, zapping our energy and motivation, interfering with our performance. [24]  Making progress toward your weight-loss goal creates positive emotions (especially when others notice), giving you a sense of satisfaction.  These positive emotions put a spring in your step and give you the energy to keep at it, saying “No” to the burger at lunch and “Yes” to the salad.

 

Leaders are biased against progress

Unfortunately, the idea of small wins and day-to-day progress goes against much of what leaders are taught.  Leaders are taught to create big, hairy audacious goals (BHAGs) and moonshots.  And we know from research that strategies frequently fail because they don’t get implemented. [25]  While lofty goals are important motivational stakes in the ground, they are achieved only through discipline, translating them into concrete steps and focusing on steady progress.

 

Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show podcast captured the essence of this mindset in a recent interview with the author Dan Pink.  Ryan reflected on an exchange he had with Drew Brees, a famous US football quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.  Ryan, an up-and-coming football player himself, asked Brees for advice.  Brees told Ryan to focus on moving the chains that if he focused on first downs, the touchdowns would come. [26]  Organizations should adopt a similar mindset.  Moonshots and BHAGs are fine, but it is the, moment-to-moment, day-to-day progress toward important goals that keeps employees feeling positive and gets them out of bed to come to work every day. Teresa Amabile captured this sentiment in her mantra for organizations and managers:  Progress in meaningful work.  

 

 

Investing in Progress

 

There are a number of steps organizations and managers can take to emphasize progress.

 

  1.  Set clear goals.  Focusing on progress requires clear goals to begin with.  This starts with clear strategic direction and priorities at the organizational level, translating these into meaningful work unit goals and individual goals. This should be a high-involvement process, with ongoing dialogue and discussion with employees throughout the year.  Goals and objectives should also be a central element of an organizations PM process.

  2. Create a “high-context” culture.  Making progress requires that employees have a deep, tacit understanding of the company strategy, direction and priorities, and how their work and the work of their team aligns with them.  High-context cultures rely more on the day-to-day judgment of their employees and less on formal, written rules, policies, procedures and detailed plans that can slow down action and decisions in more chaotic environments. [27]  

  3. Implement continuous performance management.  Making progress requires frequent, ongoing discussions between managers and employees.  Satisfaction, well-being, and performance are the result of continued engagement in important, meaningful goals, and many practitioners are calling for more continuous PM processes. [28]  Research by Matthew Killingsworth shows that facilitating progress and creating a positive outlook for employees is likely to be a moment-to-moment and day-to-day challenge for supervisors and employees. [29]

  4. Improve one-on-one meetings.  If progress, positivity, and performance is a continuous, day-to-day challenge, improving the quality of one-on-one and team meetings represents ground zero in this effort.  These conversations should have a positive, upbeat, and supportive tone to them.  Respectful Inquiry is a useful approach for conducting these meetings, which uses 3 components that acknowledge employees’ motivational needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence:  Asking versus telling; open-ended questions and listening attentively. [30]  These meetings should be focused on working with employees to facilitate (and memorialize) progress by addressing barriers and obstacles they are encountering.

  5. Develop manager skills.  Managers will need strategic skills to understand the strategic direction of the organization and tactical skills to translate this direction for the workgroup.  They need partnership and servant leadership skills to put the progress of their employees first.  They will also need new communication, interpersonal, and feedback skills.  Interactions that facilitate progress should be joint, two-way discovery exercises where the messages to be communicated are constructed together by the employee and manager during the conversation. [31]

  6. Change the work environment.  Day-to-day progress cannot rely on the supervisor and formal processes alone. Employees need autonomy to control as much of their own work as possible.  Progress is hindered by bureaucracy, “red tape,” and too many permission checks and approvals.  It also requires a collaborative environment with shared goals, where employees cooperate instead of competing.  Progress is also facilitated by a safe environment where employees feel comfortable being who they are, speaking up, and providing their input and ideas, where they can make mistakes and learn without fear of reprisal. [32]

  7. Leverage tools and technology.  Finally, tools and technology are available to support progress.  Progress checks and checklists, “snippets,” progress rituals, “done lists”, and daily journals can be used by individuals and teams to help process and reflect on the daily events, experiences, and circumstances they encounter.  These tools can also be embedded into formal processes to measure and track progress, feeding data back to supervisors, teams, and employees for problem solving and idea generation.  

 

 

Conclusion

 

Managers and HR professionals are looking for clarity on how to drive individual and organizational performance, and providing feedback isn’t doing the trick.  Employees are getting feedback, but they don’t like it and it isn’t helping them perform or improve.  Talking more about progress may not end the debate on the effectiveness of feedback, nor will it put an end to continued iterations of feedback models and interventions.  However, looking at performance and improvement through the lens of progress can give feedback a purpose,  direction, and a broader context.  It puts the focus back on performance.

 

 

References

 

[1] Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A.  (1996).  The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory.  Psychological Bulletin 119, 254-284.

 

[2] I summarize this research in Chapter 4 of my book on performance management:  See:  Colquitt, A. L. (2017).  Next generation performance management:  The triumph of science over myth and superstition.  Charlotte:  Information Age Publishing.

 

[3] Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998).  On the Self-Regulation of Behavior.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

 

[4] Zenger, J. & Folkman, J.  (2017).  Why do so many managers avoid giving praise?  Harvard Business Review Online, May 2.

 

[5] Most of these theories and the principles derived from them come from economics and psychology.  Examples from economics include classical economics and theories from labor economics (agency theory and tournament theory).  Examples from psychology include the law of effect, stimulus-response psychology and operant conditioning and expectancy theory.  The principles of scientific management popularized by Fredrick Taylor have also been influential, also represented in Douglas McGregor’s Theory X.

 

[6] Aguinis, H.,  Gottfredson, R. K., & Joo, H.  (2012).  Delivering effective performance feedback:  The strengths-based approach.  Business Horizons, 55, 105-111.

 

[7] Dalio, R.  (2017).  Principles:  Life and work.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.

 

[8] These models are referred to as Source-Message-Receiver (SMR) models of communication.  See Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.  

 

[9] See for example:

Losada, M, & Heaphy, E.  (2004).  The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams:  A nonlinear dynamics model,” American Behavioral Scientist, 47, 740-765.

Meyers, M. C., Van Woerkom, M, & Bakker, A. B.  (2013).  The added value of the positive:  A literature review of positive psychology interventions in organizations.  European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 22, 618–632.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D.  (2001).  Bad is stronger than good.  Review of GeneralPsychology 5, 323-370.

 

[10] Brett, J. F., & Atwater, L.  (2001).  360-Degree feedback:  Accuracy, reactions and perceptions of usefulness.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 930-942.

 

[11] Cornerstone OnDemand (2012).  US employees have spoken:  Managers and employees take note.  US Employee Report, November.

 

[12] Anseel, F., Van Yperen, N. W. , Janssen, O., & Duyck, W.  (2011).  Feedback type as a moderator of the relationship between achievement goals and feedback reactions.  Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 84, 703-722.

 

[13] For example, see:

Eriksson, T., Poulsen, A., & Villeval, M. C.  (2007).  Feedback and incentives: Experimental evidence.  Labour Economics, 16, 679-688

Fehr, E, & Gachter, S.  (2000).  Fairness and retaliation:  The economics of reciprocity.  Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14, 159-181.

 

[14] WorldatWork (2017).  Performance management and rewards.  WorldatWork survey report, June.

 

[15] Meyer, H. H. (1980).  Self-Appraisal of job performance.  Personnel Psychology, 33, 291-295.

 

[16] Barankay, I.  (2011).  Rankings and social tournaments: Evidence from a crowd-sourcing experiment.  University of Pennsylvania working paper.

 

[17] Deloitte.  (2016).  The new organization: Different by design.  Global Human Capital Trends Report, Deloitte University Press.

Edmondson, A. C. (2012).  Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

 

[18] Boudreau, J.  (2019).  The future of HR:  Five essential but overlooked questions.  Center for Effective Organizations, August 20.

 

[19] Hsiang, C., Johnson, R. E., & Lord, R. G.  (Moving beyond discrepancies:  The importance of velocity as a predictor of satisfaction and motivation.  Human Performance, 23, 58-80.

 

[20] Locke, E. A., & and Latham, G. P. (1990).  A theory of goal setting and task performance.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

 

[21] Amabile, T., & Kramer, S.  (2009).  The progress principle:  Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement andcreativity at work.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

 

[22] Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E.  (2005).  The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?  Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

 

[23] Barsade, S. G., & Gibson, D.  (2007).  Why does affect matter in organizations?  The Academy of Management Perspectives, 21, 36-59.

 

[24] Fredrickson, B. L.  (2001).  The role of positive emotions in positive psychology:  The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions,” American Psychologist, 56, 218-26.

 

[25] Hrebiniak, L. G.  (2005).  Making strategy happen:  Leading effective execution and change.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson Education.

 

[26] This story and Ryan’s interview with Dan Pink are recounted in:  Miller, S.  (2016).  Move the chains.  Medium, Feb. 1.

 

[27] In anthropology, countries and cultures can be arrayed from high context to low context based on the values they place on direct and indirect communication.  A high-context culture (e.g. China, Africa) relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues.  Low-context cultures (e.g. Germany, US) rely on more explicit communication and are more rules- and procedure-based.  In low-context cultures, things tend to be clearly defined and written down.  See:  E. T. Hall, “Beyond Culture,” (New York: Doubleday, 1976).

 

[28] Pulakos, E, Hanson, R., Arad, S., & Moye, N.  (2015).  Performance management can be fixed: An on-the-job experiential learning approach for complex behavior change.  Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8, 51-76.

 

[29] Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T.  (2010).  A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.  Science, 330, 932.

 

[30] Van Quaquebeke, N., & Felps, W.  (2018).  Respectful inquiry:  A motivational account of leading through asking questions and listening.  Academy of Management Review, 43, 5-27.

 

[31] Schmitz, A.  (2012).  An introduction to organizational communication.    http://2012books.lardbucket.org.

 

[32] Edmondson, A.  (2019).  The fearless organization:  Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth.  New York:  John Wiley & Sons.

 

 

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