Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 279
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Chain of Performance Improvement

Recent experiments reveal best practices in providing performance feedback.

It doesn�t seem to be so much to ask . . . �Try a little harder. Work a little smarter. Don�t let obstacles throw you so much.� But as soon as you make these demands of an employee, you create a new obligation for yourself. You become obligated to notice improvements the employee makes and to care about them. You also become obligated to try a little harder yourself to fulfill the duties of a supervisor who is coaching an employee to stimulate performance. That means you need to know the best ways to do it and to follow these practices.

Logically, performance improvement occurs in a chain of events. It begins when a supervisor notices some aspect of an employee�s performance and decides to bring it to the employee�s attention with the hope of stimulating some improvement. We call this feedback. Next, the employee has an immediate emotional reaction, and this is often quite visible. Next, the employee decides what to do about the performance the supervisor has pointed out, and finally, the employee acts. The employee implements the decisions he/she has made about this performance.

For example, a supervisor may tell an employee that his customer service behavior isn�t very good. The employee feels unhappy about these comments and decides to improve this area of performance and follow the suggestions the supervisor has made. He implements these suggestions and the supervisor notices. When the supervisor gives the employee feedback concerning these improvement efforts, the chain repeats itself.

If the above example were typical, life would be much simpler for supervisors, and applied psychology researchers would have to find other problems to study, but it isn�t typical. It�s more likely that any of a number of kinks will appear in this chain of events. For example, instead of performance improvement, the employee described above may decide to give up and withdraw all effort from this aspect of his job. He may decide to attack his accuser (his supervisor) and charge unfair treatment, biased judgment, or discrimination. He may even shift his energy off the job entirely and spend his work time thinking about another job he would prefer or an outside activity that is more enjoyable. For some supervisors, the danger posed by these and other unwanted employee reactions are so threatening that supervisors are defeated from the beginning, and they find more important things to occupy their time.

Remus Ilies, from Michigan State University, recently completed a study of the chain of performance improvement. He found the most consistent improvement occurred when employees formed positive goal discrepancies, that is, when employees perceived their current performance as not quite at the level that they desire. Employees form these positive goal discrepancies after they emotionally react to feedback and before they make decisions about future goals they will pursue. It is this emotional reaction that Ilies found to be crucial in forming positive goal discrepancies.

Professor Ilies explained that people form either positive or negative emotions after receiving performance feedback, and each of these stimulates a different behavioral motivation system. Positive emotions stimulate people to seek rewards. Negative emotions stimulate people to avoid punishments. It is the emotions that feedback arouses that determines if positive goal discrepancies are formed, so it is positive emotions that supervisors should strive to stimulate when they give feedback.

Negative feedback can arouse positive emotions if it is mild. Severely negative feedback arouses negative emotions and causes people to give up.

Feedback need not be accurate. If inaccurate feedback arouses positive emotions, then it is preferable to accurate feedback that arouses negative emotions. Your goal is to stimulate improvement; however, feedback must be credible.

Feedback which compares an employee�s performance to the performance of others may arouse positive emotions, but often it doesn�t. If it is too negative, then a person will give up. If it is too positive, i.e. a person performing much better than other employees, then it will lead to a negative emotion and an employee will reduce performance. Feedback which compares the employee�s current performance with the employee�s past performance is preferable. It more consistently arouses positive emotions which lead to positive goal discrepancies.

That�s the best of it. Professor Ilies conducted six experiments using three types of tasks and three types of performance feedback, and he experimented on 900 subjects. He may have learned some things we can use.

Reference: Ilies, Remus and Timothy Judge (2005) Goal Regulation Across Time: The Effects of Feedback and Affect. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90 (3), 453-467.

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