Feedback is the backbone of most people management processes. Yet is there any evidence that it works? Anecdotally many people tell me it doesn’t and my own experience over many years of managing people is that positive feedback focused on what is being done right does work but negative or constructive feedback doesn’t. I say this having spent many years trying to train people to give feedback and work with teams on creating a feedback culture. When I stepped back and really analyzed the results I was getting I saw they were at best neutral and at worst damaging individual confidence and relationships. That sent me on a mission to understand the basis of our attachment to feedback and the scientific evidence that it works.
First what is the definition of feedback? One that is fairly helpful comes from The Power of Feedback. ‘Feedback is information provided by an agent (e.g. boss, teacher, peer, book, parent, experience) regarding aspects of one's performance or understanding’.
What’s the evidence? Psychology
The most comprehensive study I found on performance feedback was by Denisi & Kluger which dates back to 1996. The quote above comes from a review done later but is focused on school children and teaching. Denisi and Kluger found mixed evidence on the value of feedback and say that about 1/3 of the time feedback leads to improved performance, 1/3 does nothing, and in a 1/3 of examples it leads to worse performance. But the devil is in the details so let's explore a little more.
On simple tasks where people have experience feedback can improve performance, in some specific circumstances where there are clear goals set by the employee feedback can also improve performance on complex tasks. They think this is because employees are more focused on learning and goal attainment, therefore worry less about protecting their image and overcome concerns about image in order to learn in pursuit of their goal. For this to be effective, goals must be in place before the feedback is given. This is especially important in training and other learning situations. There is also some evidence that feedback can improve performance through improved motivation. However the research suggests that when feedback improves performance in this way the effect depends on a continuous flow of feedback and if it stops it results in a reversal of motivation and performance. The authors suggest the cost of maintaining continuous feedback may outweigh the benefits and create only shallow learning which impacts the ability to use the learning later.
Denisi and co also found that feedback can be harmful when given to employees engaged in complex, difficult or unfamiliar tasks. This is because the feedback shifts focus from the task to protecting their self-image and creates a fear of looking incompetent. This negatively impacts performance. The research also suggests that feedback about attitude and personal traits does not work and damages performance.
What’s the evidence? Neuroscience
Threat and reward
Neuroscience research has found that just saying ‘let me give you some feedback’ creates a threat response in the brain. We have discussed threat and reward responses before. For more details read my article on Performance Management and watch our video on CORE. CORE stands for:
- Certainty: the knowledge that we can predict the future
- Options: the extent to which we feel we have choice
- Reputation: our relative importance to others
- Equity: our sense that things are equitable
Feedback can create a threat or reward response in any of these domains in social situations but is more likely to create threat unless it is very specific and positive. For example, negative feedback impacts the sense of reputation which leads to reduced connection with the group and potentially creates a sense of shame. I believe negative feedback also impacts certainty; because employees no longer know what is the right work method and options because being told they are not performing to expectations limits their autonomy. Both of which probably feel unfair.
The other consideration is what we give feedback on. Carol Dweck’s research on fixed and growth mindset suggests two different attitudes to performance. One is a fixed mindset; characterized by believing performance is based on abilities fixed by our intelligence or talents. This mindset believes there is little individuals can do to change; employees dismiss feedback but also exhibit less persistence, less learning from experience and more concern about reputation and peer comparison. A fixed mindset provides no mechanisms for dealing with setbacks and failure and typically people would rather give up than take risks on the perception of their performance. Managers who believe in this view of the world find it hard to see the point of feedback; performance as based on innate traits and trying to improve them is pretty much a waste of time.
The alternative mindset is labeled Growth. People with this mindset believe performance is based on hard work, experience and effort. Dweck’s studies show people with a growth mindset work harder, learn from experience and are willing to take more risk to achieve results. In one experiment growth mindset people played more attention to learning where they had gone wrong than whether they scored the highest marks. Managers who share this belief are more inclined to give positive feedback, provide stretch assignments and coach.
We need to ensure feedback suggests the potential for improvement. This means watching how we craft feedback from “You’re good at data but not communication” to “You’ve worked really hard on the analysis part; how can you best communicate your findings?” This focuses people on the effort that generated result not just talent, and primes people to seek their own insights on an area that needs change.
What about positive feedback?
There is some evidence that feedback which fosters self-esteem can boost performance (Bandura, 1986) Getting approval feels good. It is a sign that you are part of the in-group. It is typically both highly motivating and rewarding. But as has been well documented approval reduces intrinsic motivation to gain mastery. Approval is a form of success or failure, rather than an opportunity to learn. It also often leads to social comparison which can be divisive in the workplace. Our brains play a lot of attention to assessing our social position according to Lieberman & Eisenberger. And there is evidence that other people’s success can cause envy and even Schadenfreude, a delight in seeing others receive negative feedback, according to Dean Mobbs and colleagues.
Leaders and positive feedback
Deci, a professor at University of Rochester, found in his research on positive feedback that supporting a sense of competence makes people feel good and that when people are motivated and engaged in work they do it well.
But on the whole UK leaders are failing to maximise feelings of reward in the workforce. When asked whether their leader gave them praise, positive feedback or recognition of their contribution to the organisation, just 17% of employees said the feedback they got was always constructive. 42% said feedback was only ever negative, or that there was none at all.
But again the devil is in the detail. The Progress Principle is a fascinating study on how organisations sustain effective performance and high employee satisfaction – the authors undertook a survey of 238 employees in seven companies over several months and found that knowledge workers who keep a diary to describe an event that stood out each day experienced three categories of positive feedback. On the ‘best days’ they reported:
- Nourishing events: those that uplift people. For example, when a boss praises the employee or provides emotional support was 25%
- Catalytic events: that help work tasks such as providing resources or training were 43%
- Progress events: when people get feedback on how they are making progress in meaningful work were 76%
This means it is worth saying “Good job” to people (nourishing events). It’s even better to give people resources and training (catalytic events), but if you want to maximise the impact on motivation and engagement, comment on progress towards a goal that is important to someone. When bosses praise on progress, they remind employees that they are advancing and signal it is noticed; consistent with a growth mindset.
The answer to the feedback issue seems to be to focus on positive feedback and give that feedback on the progress made towards goals people value and encourage employees to assess their own performance, especially how they can do even better at what they are doing.
How well would your leaders fair on giving this type of feedback?