Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 76
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Leading People into a Rut

New research reveals a common mistake involving performance feedback and demonstrates what happens when it's corrected.

Do you supervise any employees who, with a single, sideways, suspicious glance, let you know that you should just keep it to yourself if there's anything about their job performance you don't like? For most managers, these employees are familiar. They resist change, they don't want promotions, they won't learn anything new, and they don't improve.

Has anyone ever suggested you cause this, that employees wouldn't develop these qualities if you did your job differently?

Logic has always pointed to this conclusion.

Employees never start this way. They're fresh and curious. They dream of running the company someday, and they want to improve, pestering you for feedback.

And telling them how to improve doesn't seem awkward, but this soon changes. Soon, they're giving us suspicious glances, too. It must be something we're doing, but what could it be?

Everyone at all levels of management struggles with this question, and now a remarkable study conducted by a team from the University of Akron, led by Paul Levy, has supplied the answer: Privacy.

We've always been reminded to provide performance feedback in private. Indeed, that's one of the main reasons we have offices. But Levy, et al., discovered the real meaning of privacy in providing feedback. It means without anyone else being there, even us! EVEN US!

Levy's team discovered that all the negative qualities we're accustomed to seeing, disappear when people receive honest feedback on demand, from a computer. Like checking your credit by logging on to a data base, people who check their performance ratings without anyone knowing about it increase their frequency of seeking feedback over time! And that's a remarkable discovery.

Levy and his team created a performance task for 192 subjects and repeated it over 4 trials. Any time during the task, subjects could push a key on their computer terminals to request feedback, and 77% of them did so during the first trial. Once the key was pushed, they learned how the feedback would be delivered, and were given an opportunity to change their minds and bypass the feedback.

One third were told a supervisor would come and speak with them face-to-face. One third were told a supervisor would send feedback to their terminals (a semi-private arrangement), and one third were told the computer would analyze their performance and give them a report (a totally private arrangement; feedback ratings were actually entered by an experimenter).

Nearly 65% of those in the face-to-face group changed their minds at this point and bypassed the feedback; 26% of those in the semiprivate group changed their minds, but only 4% of those in the private group did so. People in the face-to-face group were 16 times more likely to change their minds and avoid the feedback than people in the private group. Like children touching a hot stove, they learned very quickly the punishing effect of pushing the feedback key and having to face an evaluator.

All requests for feedback declined in the second trial, but requests from people in the face-to-face group continued declining over the third and fourth trials. Both the private and semi private groups increased their requests for feedback on the third trial, and those in the private group increased their requests once again in the fourth trial, reaching the highest level of all.

People receiving face-to-face feedback clearly were headed toward never requesting feedback, and that's what we see with our employees. People receiving private feedback were headed in the opposite direction, freely requesting performance feedback and increasing their requests over time. Imagine what it would be like if your employees did that.

Few managers enjoy giving negative feedback. Indeed, most of us avoid it. Levy, et al's, research reveals why we feel this way: We don't belong there. We feel it, and so do our employees.

Of all the people employees don't want listening to their negative feedback, we managers probably top the list. Our impressions often strongly impact their lives. This causes anxiety and compels them to avoid feedback altogether. Levy, et al., demonstrated how we can avoid causing this and showed what will happen if we implement truly private performance feedback. A little tinkering with our computer systems, and it could happen.

Reference: Levy, Paul E., Michelle D. Albright, Brian D. Cawley, and Jane R. Williams (1995). Situational and Individual Determinants of Feedback Seeking: A Closer Look at the Process. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 62 (1), 23-37.

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