Actionable feedback: Unlocking the power of learning and performance improvement

CANNON, Mark D. & WITHERSPOON, Robert, «Actionable feedback : Unlocking the power of learning and performance improvement», Academy of Management Executive, 2005, vol.19, no 2, p. 120-134.

Critical Feedback

Not only is it unsavory to give, but its delivery frequently fails to lead to a desirable change in the recipient’s behavior. Recipients can sometimes harbor hostile feelings for years afterward.

Delivering feedback, especially critical feedback, produces strong emotional reactions that may hinder learning and development.

Actionable Feedback

Feedback that produces both learning and tangible, appropriate results, such as increasing effectiveness and improving performance on the job.

Why write this article

Talented people depend on others for honest assessments of their work in determining what to do better, without feedback, improvement is hard to pinpoint.

Kluger and DeNisi: Only a modest positive relationship between feedback and performance; 38% actually had a negative impact on performance.

People tend not to view themselves accurately, and they are not good at accurately perceiving how others are seeing them.

Cognitive and Emotional Dynamics Impacting Feedback Receivers

Self-serving bias
Our successes are our own, but our failures are due to external forces.

Taylor et al.: Positive illusions are a hallmark of mental health and are crucial to enabling people to avoid depression and maintain the self-esteem, confidence and optimism that keep them motivated, persistent and productive.

Bandura: High perceived self-efficacy enhances performance and seeing yourself as more capable than reality enhances performance more than accurate self-perception

Perceived attacks on the ego or identity can lead to a “fight or flight” emotional reaction. Stress or the experience of a threat can lead to rigidity, a restriction in information processing and a constriction of control and hamper further learning.

Flawed Feedback

Non-actionable comments will not lead to improvement.

A skilled third party may be helpful in getting the truth, in lowering the filtering to get more accurate data.

1. Attacks on the person rather than the behavior (Ad Hominem)

Often taken as a personal attack, as a statement that they are not capable of change. Provokes a strong defensive emotional reaction and can discourage the receiver.

Has a negative effect on subsequent performance.

Start with “I” rather than “you”, the focus is less on blaming and more on helping. It helps the receiver to understand the perceptions of the giver.

2. Vague or abstract assertions

Can be interpreted in different ways and lead to miscommunication. It encourages defensiveness because it may seem inaccurate or falsely accusational.

3. Without illustrations

Essentials for making a concrete connection.

4. Ill-defined range of application

Offered without any clarification avout the conditions under which the problematic behavior does or does not exhibit itself. Lead to defensiveness, the receiver may think of one situation where it does not apply and dismiss the whole feedback out of hand as being inaccurate and feeling unfairly attacked.

5. Unclear impact and implication for action

Clear impacts are missing and it is impossible to determine clearly defined needed changes in behavior.

Cognitive and Emotional Dynamics Impacting Feedback Givers

1. Inference-making limitations

We are overwhelmed with information and have learned to be selective as to where we focus our attention. This filtering process acts by multiplying biases and miscommunications.

Argyris’ ladder of inference depicts how very different our interpretation of the same data can be.

2. Attributional biases

Actor/observer bias
Failures to internal causes (employee), discouting successes and find performance lacking.

If the focus is on a stable cause, such as lack of ability or personality trait, it can leave the receiver feeling discouraged about the prospect for change.

False consensus bias
We overestimate the likelyhood that others will see things as we do. Reduces the need for the manager to give concrete information and leads to vague, unactionable feedback.

3. Overconfidence

We tend to forget that our conclusions about people are not cold, hard facts, but inferences made using the imperfect lense of subjectively filtered information with possible biases and misinterpretations.

We assume that our perception is the greater reality. Thus, we often do not feel the need to explain or illustrate our feedback.

4. Third-party perspective differences

We see the flaws in others’ feedback, but fail to see our own because it makes sense with our self-defined reality with all the available information that others may not readily know. We are insufficiently aware of how large a gap may exist between our perception and those of the receiver.

5. Strong emotions can impact ratings and feedback formulation and delivery

Managers have their own unrelated personal problems and stresses. They may be affected by their working relationship or working history with the receiver and by their dependence on the receiver or his pas performance.

Managers who believe both that they have been affected negatively by a subordinate and that the cause was lack of effort provide feedback that is more punitive than it would be otherwise.

Some even try to provoke a response by pushing harder than deserved.

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