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Taking a look at the Great Feedback Debate


It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone. You're reading one of the pieces that's been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

Although feedback is the backbone of many people management processes in many, many cases companies it has been delivered as a single event delivered at the end of the year usually with haste on the part of the manager and shock on the part of the receiver.

As we see more and more companies remove ranking, ratings and re-engineering their performance processes we also see an increased reliance on the use of feedback.

In the re-engineered performance approach, mostly based on quality conversations, feedback is crucial and yet few companies have done much to equip managers and employees to get better at this essential element of achieving high performance. The traditional approach remains.

Is there any evidence that feedback works to improve performance?

By traditional I mean feedback which is collected and delivered by the line manager to the employee. But is there any evidence that feedback works to improve performance? 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 working with companies to create a feedback culture. When I stepped back and really analysed 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 for its role in performance.

Before you read on, a health warning…

Many people both in business roles and HR will find the evidence below shocking; your natural reaction will be to reject what is said, you may feel angry, want to stop reading and even want to send me some ‘constructive’ feedback. Understand all of these reactions are just the threat response. Because what is written is probably challenging deeply help beliefs. Stick with it. There are solutions at the end of the article.

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."

The quote comes from a review focused on school children and teaching, but it makes a number of useful points about different types of feedback and the results which can be achieved.

So with this broad definition let's look at the evidence about feedback. What works and what doesn’t and what you can do to make your quality conversations worthwhile.

What’s the evidence? Psychology

The most comprehensive review of studies on performance feedback was carried out by Denisi and Kluger and dates back to 1996. 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.

On simple tasks where people don’t have experience feedback can improve performance, in some specific circumstances where there are clear goals set by the employee.

Think about learning to use a new computer programme and someone who is expert tells you how to maximise the use of the toolbar.

Feedback can also improve performance on complex tasks in certain conditions when the goal is important to the employee. Researchers think this is because employees are focused on learning and goal attainment and therefore worry less about protecting their reputation as competent and overcome these type of concerns in order to pursuit their goal.

Feedback can be harmful when given to employees engaged in complex, difficult or unfamiliar tasks.

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 and we have developed a model to help remember the elements – CORE. For more details read my article on Performance Management, watch the webinar or for a short explanation of the CORE model watch our video.

CORE stands for:

  • Certainty: our confidence that we know what the future holds
  • Options: the extent to which we feel we have choices
  • Reputation: our relative importance to others (our social ranking)
  • Equity: our sense of fairness

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 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.

Negative feedback also impacts certainty; because employees no longer know what is the right work method and options because being told they are not carrying out the role in the way expected limits their autonomy. Both of which probably feel unfair.

Feedback content

The other consideration is what we give feedback on. Carol Dweck’s research on fixed and growth mindset found two different sets of beliefs about 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 do not seek feedback and may avoid it. They 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 creating a less than perfect 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. If you haven’t tackled this in your quality conversations you are likely to find it very hard to get the approach to stick.

We need to ensure feedback suggests the potential for improvement.

The alternative mindset is labelled 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, respond to change and are willing to take more risk to achieve results.

In one experiment people with a growth mindset paidd 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 their employee.

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 results not just talent, and primes people to seek their own insights on an area that needs change.

What about positive feedback?

There is 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 (in the brain).

But as has been well-documented high levels of approval can reduce intrinsic motivation to gain mastery. It effectively primes people for a fixed mindset ‘I’m Ok as I am.’

Our brains play a lot of attention to assessing our social position

Approval is a form of success or failure, rather than an opportunity to learn. It can also lead 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 and 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 perform well.

Our own research suggests however that 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, a fascinating study on how organisations sustain effective performance and high employee satisfaction undertook a survey of 238 employees in seven companies over several months. They found that knowledge workers who keep a diary to describe an event that stood out each day experienced three categories of positive feedback. They reported the impact of different types of feedback:

  • Nourishing events: these stood out 25% of the time. This is feedback that uplifts people. For example, when a boss praises the employee or provides emotional support.
  • Catalytic events: these stood out 43% of the time. These help work tasks such as providing resources or training.
  • Progress events: these stood out and contributed to having a good day 76% of the time. These events are when people get feedback on how they are making progress in work which is meaningful to them.

This means is 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.

Three other pieces of research are relevant:

  • Emily Heaphy and consultant Marcial Losada found that leadership teams which had more positive comments performed significantly higher than those with limited positive commentssix positive comments to one negative was the ratio found. The lowest-performing leadership teams had three negative comments for every one positive. It’s an interesting exercise to monitor you own team or the leadership group. Note that high performance doesn’t require no negative comments: it is about the ratio.
  • Zenger found that negative feedback helps leaders deal with serious faults in style and attitude when given via 360. Zenger emphasises the issue must be serious, that is career threatening, to have the desired impact. He says negative feedback helps leaders who are ‘going off the cliff’ but only positive feedback helps people to continue doing what they do well and do it ‘with more vigour, determination, and creativity’.
  • Finally Boyatzis found that when monitoring people in an fMIR scanner being coached on their hopes and desires created activity in the regions associated with positive feelings and also the medial prefrontal cortex, an area known to activate when thinking about self and others. This type of activity in the brain was also linked to behavioural changes.

Practical application

Drawing on the science in our work with clients' one way we have used to improve quality conversations and performance is to provide more balance in the role of manager and employee.

Employees are trained to take accountability for understanding the standards of performance required, monitoring their own performance, collecting feedback and even initiating conversations. This is done alongside an approach which trains managers and employees in adopting a growth mindset and structures goals based on a growth mindset.

That is, they measure the amount of learning and effort, not just the outcome. With this training in place we have seen more adoption of quality conversations. This combination of changes has the impact of empowering employees and freeing the manager from the burden of always leading and collecting data for the conversation.

Along the way it reduces threat because asking for input on their performance gives employees more certainty, options and can offset the threat to reputation by achieving better performance. The approach requires all employees to be given skills in understanding standards and monitoring their performance and support for managers to step back and encourage accountability from the employee.

The trends in creating high performance

There is one other form of feedback which is just beginning to be talked about by the clients we work with and that is Feed Forward. Feed Forward is based on the theory of appreciative enquiry, which proposes that understanding strengths and success stories forms a better basis for improved performance than seeking to point out defects with negative feedback.

Feed Forward also differs from typical review conversations because like our method it places more emphasis on the employee’s views, with the manager primarily deeply listening and asking questions and the employee having input into what is discussed.

The limited research on Feed Forward suggests it results in better relationships and higher performance. The full article is hard to get but there is an excellent summary by CIPD researcher Jonny Gifford. Jonny points out it is an easy method to implement but as we know being easy doesn’t make it so!

The answer to the feedback debate seems to be to focus on positive feedback and give that feedback on the progress made towards goals people value, and also to encourage employees to assess their own performance, especially how they can do even better at what they are doing.

It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone. You're reading one of the pieces that's been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

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Jan Hills


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