Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 255
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Managing Snapshot Feedback

Research explores the role employees play in controlling supervisors' informal feedback.

Imagine this scene: A teenage boy is clearing off a table in a restaurant. His arms are piled high with dirty dishes, and suddenly, a half-full parfait dish tumbles off the stack and shatters on the floor, splattering white, gooey blobs of melted ice cream and splinters of glass on the legs of customers seated nearby.

What a catastrophe!

Now, look at the scene again, but this time slow the action down and notice where the boy's attention goes at the moment that he knows there will be a disaster. The boy glances at his supervisor and notices two things, first, that she sees the catastrophe and, second, that she has a decidedly distressed look on her face.

This is called snapshot feedback, and it occurs dozens of times each day. It's composed of two elements. First, a supervisor and an employee both notice an action of the employee, and second, the supervisor has an emotional reaction to it which the employee notices. In the example above, the boy noticed that the supervisor saw the accident, and he noticed that she was distressed by it.

Snapshot feedback is extremely important to employees. It gives them daily guidance about their performance, and it combines over time to form the recommendations found on annual performance reviews, salary increases, and promotion requests. Indeed, it is so important that Sherry Moss, from Florida International University, believed that employees must have well defined strategies to try to control it. She was so sure that she carried out a research study to find out if she was right. She was right, they do.

She worked with 33 participants in an executive MBA program at a major university and asked them to recount personal examples of both outstanding and poor performance. Then she explored their reactions to this performance. She looked especially for examples of behaviors that 1) called their supervisors' attention to their performance when it was good, 2) excused or mitigated the performance if it was poor, or 3) concealed the performance from the supervisor if it was poor.

Her findings surprised her.

She expected that most the examples of these employees' efforts to manage snapshot feedback would fall into the first category, calling attention to their good performance. But it turned out that the most efforts fell into the second category, excusing or mitigating poor performance. The third category was also a surprise. In one third of all the instances of poor performance her executive MBA students cited, they attempted to manage the snapshot feedback they received by concealing the performance or concealing themselves through avoiding their supervisors altogether. She also expected to find that her respondents would tend to use both mitigating and avoidance strategies when their performance was poor, but again she was surprised. They tended to use one or the other, but not both.

These findings clearly worried her.

Her MBA students were competent, high achieving people, yet in many of their instances of poor performance, they concealed the facts from their supervisors. Poor performance that fails to come to the attention of supervisors is performance that isn't corrected, and that may well impact the entire business. It's a threat, and Moss is worried that this concealment is widespread. She also has some recommendations for us to respond to it.

First, she suggests that supervisors pay attention to the efforts of their employees to manage snapshot feedback and notice if the second category, mitigating or excusing poor performance, is absent. In her study it was the most common. If it's absent, it means that employees are tending to conceal poor performance. They're reluctant to inform their supervisors of their own poor performance by offering an excuse or apologizing, and they're choosing instead to conceal it.

Second, she suggests that supervisors develop ways of offering snapshot feedback that protect the feelings of employees. She feels that employees learn to avoid snapshot feedback when the feedback they do receive hurts their feelings. She challenges supervisors to learn ways to be kind as they use snapshot feedback so their employees will be more willing to reveal poor performance when it occurs.

Reference: Moss, Sherry E., Enzo Valenzi, and William Taggart (2003) Are You Hiding from Your Boss? Journal of Management, 29(4), 487-510.

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