Future-focus has the power to transform the practice of feedback. Giving feedback about performance is one of the key elements of mentorship, coaching, supervision, and parenting. Unfortunately, research indicates that performance feedback often does not result in the hoped-for enlightenment and improvement—a finding well supported in the anecdotal experience of many mentors, coaches, supervisors, and parents. Our research sheds light on what factors restrain the success of performance feedback and how it can be made more effective. Answers to these questions have major theoretical and practical implications for successful learning and for the effective transmission of knowledge and skill in many aspects of life.
Consider, for example, the widespread use of performance feedback in a managerial context. In nearly all organizations, feedback from managers is seen as a major resource for improving performance and developing talent. A survey of over 12,000 managers reported by Michaels, Handfield-Jones, & Axelrod (2001) indicates that managers believe that candid, insightful feedback would be critically important to their development as managers, if only their companies did a good job of providing it. Their common complaint is that their companies do not do a good job of providing feedback.
Nor, apparently, do managers do a good job of receiving it. According to FranklinCovey 360 Research (as cited by Marcum, Smith, and Khalsa, 2002):
Over the past 10 years, we have surveyed over 150,000 managers and professionals, from over 500 companies, including 83 of the Fortune 100. We asked them to rate each other, and themselves, on 78 items of effectiveness in business. The two items that have ranked dead last over more than a decade of asking are “Receives negative feedback without becoming defensive” and “Seeks feedback on ways he/she can improve.” (p. 49)
Given all that, perhaps it should not be so surprising that the effects of performance feedback on performance are highly variable and not always positive. Indeed, a large-scale analysis by Kluger & DeNisi (1996) found that the most common impact on performance is none, regardless of whether the feedback is positive or negative. Such findings have produced some bleak conclusions (e.g., “researchers and practitioners alike confuse their feelings that feedback is desirable with the question of whether [it] benefits performance,” Kluger & DeNisi, 1996, p. 277; and “Performance appraisal does not lead to performance improvement and performance appraisals destroy relationships in organizations,” Bouskila-Yam & Kluger, 2011, p. 138). They have also led to calls for abolishing performance reviews entirely (e.g., Coens & Jenkins, 2000; Culbert, 2010).
In a recently-published paper with co-authors Ian O. Williamson and Sema Barlas, we describe three studies exploring the effects of managerial feedback (Gnepp, Klayman, Williamson, & Barlas, 2020). These included two role-play studies and a survey of hundreds real work experiences. Participants were managers working in a large variety of businesses and other organizations. Our findings indicate that traditional feedback, with its emphasis on examining the quality and causes of past performance, often has unintended, negative effects. Instead of the hoped-for agreement and motivation to improve, corrective feedback can produce disagreement between the provider and recipient of feedback and weaken motivation to change and improve. After receiving mixed or negative feedback, recipients showed increased self-protective and self-enhancing attributions about the causes of past performance; that is, they took greater personal credit for their successes and less personal responsibility for their failures. Furthermore, they doubted both the accuracy of the feedback and the providers’ qualifications to give it. In contrast, our data indicate that to be productive, feedback should focus on the future, including discussion of potential opportunities and next steps, rather than on analysis of past events. We find that the more the feedback discussion focuses on the future, the greater the perception of agreement between the provider and recipient of feedback, and the stronger the recipient’s motivation to change and improve. When feedback discussions focus on the future, people can accept and be motivated by the feedback they get, even when that feedback is mainly negative.
The potential value of this work is large and broad-ranging. Providers of traditional feedback want to help others improve, but they find giving feedback difficult and they often avoid this aspect of their jobs. Recipients of feedback are eager for information that will help them improve, but dread getting negative feedback and are often too defensive to benefit from it. Learning a future-focused approach to feedback could greatly enrich supervisor/subordinate interactions and improve both learning and performance. A good portion of the available advice on how to give feedback is based on the assumption that, to be effective, feedback must enlighten its recipients about the quality and causes of their past performance, and that this enlightenment will motivate and guide future performance improvement. Thus, advice is often aimed at making the process of diagnosing the past less painful (e.g., by mixing in positive feedback) and more informative (e.g., by giving specific examples). Our theory and the results of our two studies suggest that these are not optimal approaches. It would be more effective for feedback providers and recipients to avoid diagnosing what went wrong in the past and instead to orient their discussion toward future actions aimed at producing improved performance. We offer a set of recommendations for how this approach can be implemented by feedback providers, feedback recipients, or, ideally, both. We propose these steps, expressed here with regard to the feedback provider:
Express the goal of improving future performance
Specify performance standards and ideals, i.e., what the feedback provider is hoping for
Review past performance, providing warranted praise and, where performance is poor, sticking to the facts and avoiding discussion of causes and explanations
Assume motivation and competence to improve
Invite discussion of targets and milestones
Develop solutions together.
Instead of debating reasons for past performance, feedback providers can focus their energies fully on collaborating with the feedback recipient to generate new ideas for next steps, to develop opportunities for interesting and worthwhile activities, to enlarge the vision of what the recipient could accomplish, and to discuss what the recipient might do to be most successful in the future. Such an approach, our research suggests, holds great promise for promoting motivation to change and improving performance.
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