Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

Futile feedback

September 16th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

The Globe and Mail recently polled readers about their views on performance appraisals.  In their survey of  1337 people, they found that only 27% of people found appraisals to be a useful tool.  Another 20% believed it to be a necessary evil and a majority, 53%, described it as a total waste of time.  This might not be a surprise to anyone who has had a performance appraisal, but, it does beg the question why do we keep doing it?  Is it because it works?

An extensive body of research has investigated the effects of managerial feedback interventions on subordinates’ performance.  The expectation is that feedback helps to increase the opportunities for employees to learn and to become aware of the results of performance. The premise is that the employee is then able to use the knowledge to take corrective action and improve their own outcomes.  However, research has demonstrated that feedback is not consistently effective .  In fact, seminal work by Avi Kluger and Angelo DeNisi found that feedback leads to performance improvement only a third of the time.  Another third of the time, it leads to performance decrements, and the final third of the time there is no change in performance at all. 

The traditional performance feedback interview has at least three key shortcomings.  First, there are potential damaging effects for the employee’s relationship with the manager if the feedback is not delivered effectively.  Second, as noted above, the effectiveness of feedback itself for performance development is inconsistent and has been shown to decrease performance in some cases.  Third, the feedback is often biased and inaccurate for a variety of reasons including human error and political motivation.  This often leads the employee to believe that the appraisal process is unfair or unjust.  The effectiveness of feedback can be altered by the accuracy of the message, the manner in which the feedback is delivered, the credibility of the person providing the feedback, and the perceived fairness of the message.  This is complicated stuff and most managers to not deliver timely and relevant feedback well. 

Many have called for the abolishment of appraisals.  Despite these concerns around effectiveness and the potential negative effects, feedback continues to be a popular method for developing employees within organizations.  Perhaps it is due to the lack of good alternatives to feedback.  There is most certainly a need to develop our employees.  Intuitively telling people where they went wrong and asking them to correct their errors makes sense; however, in practice it simply does not work consistently enough for us  to rely on appraisal and evaluation as the primary driver for employee development. 

This area is ripe for development.  I am really intrigued by strength based approached. These techniques ask us to move away from deficit based models of performance management and toward techniques that maximize strengths.  I am currently writing up some work I did on the feedforward technique.  I would not suggest that this is the only possible alternative, but I do find it intriguing. Take a look and tell me what you think.


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