Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 154
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Firing Employees is No Fun!

Research reveals new insights into performance feedback.

That's right, firing employees is no fun. It always gets you thinking and questioning yourself, trying to understand what went wrong. Invariably, this question comes to mind: "Why did the person ignore my suggestions for improvement?"

Your suggestions were most likely well thought out and delivered with clarity and tact. Yes, why indeed?!

Audrey Korsgaard, from they University of South Carolina, recently completed a series of experiments exploring people's reactions to feedback, and some of her subjects displayed exactly this reaction, they ignored negative performance feedback and the improvement suggestions that accompanied them. Korsgaard's experiments were intended to expose the thinking patterns causing these reactions and to suggest new approaches to overcome them, and on these aims she was successful.

Korsgaard discovered that a key personal value plays an important role. It is one's concern for others, and it interacts with feedback by assigning importance to it.

People vary in the importance they assign to other people -- to helping them, listening to them, and caring about what they think. And this includes what bosses think about their job performance.

In her experiments, Korsgaard found she could predict who would reject negative feedback and improvement suggestions by noting their ranking of the concern-for-others value in an exercise titled "Comparative Emphasis Scale." In this exercise, people rank 4 values: fairness, achievement, honesty / integrity, and concern for others. People ranking concern for others last also rejected feedback and improvement suggestions.

We can recognize a person's weak concern for others by observing his/her words and deeds. Now, thanks to Korsgaard's research, checking this value will be our first step when we're preparing to correct weak performance. And when we recognize it, we can alter our approach.

We can separate our negative feedback from our improvement suggestions, presenting feedback one day and suggestions the next. We can present our improvement suggestions in writing, and we can include a description of performance benefits we expect will follow if our suggestions are followed.

With this approach, the negative evaluation of a previous day is remembered, but its potency is lessened, and a person can consider the benefits of implementing our improvement suggestions and not be burdened with the negative feedback. We can sell employees on our ideas. It's a new approach with much promise.

Before we move on to another of Korsgaard's findings, it's useful for us to pause and remember that supervisors also receive feedback and suggestions for improvement, so you might revisit negative feedback and suggestions you've received lately, and look for some evidence of this problem with you.

Korsgaard's experiments also revealed a second reaction to feedback worth noting. She found some people implemented improvement suggestions that lowered their performance. And recognizing the effect made no difference. For these people, the suggestions seemed to be more important than their own performance, even though the suggestions were supposed to improve their performance. It seems odd, but there it is.

Once again, Korsgaard discovered that the concern-for-others value identified the people likely to commit this mistake. It was the people who ranked concern for others as most important. Apparently, these people place too much trust in people they respect, so they implement suggestions without noticing the effect.

For these people, we need to carefully consider our suggestions before we give them. We need to think about objective performance measures we expect to be impacted by our suggestions. And we need to assign these people to monitor these measures and to be alert to any deterioration. This strategy should encourage self corrections.

Reference: Korsgaard, M. Audrey, Bruce M. Meglino, and Scott W. Lester (1997). Beyond Helping: Do Other-Oriented Values Have Broader Implications in Organizations? Journal of Applied Psychology, 82 (1), 160-177.

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