The Feedback Gamble - IEDP
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The Feedback Gamble

The pros and cons of seeking feedback and how to use feedback to boost performance


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An employee’s track record, their manager’s beliefs, and how often they ask for feedback will affect how supervisors weigh up their proactive behaviour.Feedback has generally been thought to only be positive, but recent research by Katleen de Stobbeleir (Vlerick School of Management), Susan Ashford (Ross School, University of Michigan) and Mary Sulle de Luque (Thunderbird School of Global Management) from  suggest this is not always the case.

If feedback backfires, it can deter employees in the future, and this can limit the potential productivity gains to the company and ultimately a worker’s pay, performance and development opportunities.

ASKING THE BOSS: Pros and cons

Seeking feedback is considered a positive thing by enabling employees to adapt and respond to changing goals and expectations and so improve their performance . But research suggests that managers interpret requests for feedback in different ways, and at the end of the day such evaluations will shape the nature of his or her relationship with a member of staff and ultimately that employee’s pay and prospects.

On the one hand, a manager may attribute a request for feedback to an employee’s commitment to improving his or her performance. A worker may want to know more about is or her responsibilities; to discover exactly what is expected of him; to perform better and learn etc.

On the other hand, that manager may interpret it as an effort by an employee to manage perceptions others have of him or her. The worker may be trying to make a manager believe he or she is helpful; to look good; to obtain recognition or rewards etc.

The more a manager attributes requests for feedback to an effort to improve performance, the better that supervisor tends to evaluate the employee’s work. But if a manager thinks an employee is merely seeking to manage his or her image, this can taint their view of that employee’s contribution.

GOOD BEHAVIOUR: Performance matters

Theory suggests that managers respond to cues when evaluating workers’ behaviour - particularly their performance record. Scholars have found that, of the staff who seek feedback, average workers are seen as less confident and competent than superior performers.

Paradoxically, this means that those who stand to gain most from feedback may in turn be the most reluctant to ask for it because they fear how it will be evaluated. The researchers predicted that managers are more likely to attribute an employee’s motive for seeking feedback to an effort to improve their performance if they are better workers, and more likely to attribute it to a desire to manage their image if they are average workers.

However, a manager’s opinion will also depend on how often member of staff asks for feedback. Research has assumed that the more feedback people seek, the better – but some studies suggest requesting feedback often can be seen as dysfunctional. The researchers predicted that if an employee seeks feedback frequently, it will strengthen the assumptions managers typically make about why an employee does so.

Managers will be more likely to attribute requesting feedback often to an effort to improve performance if it comes from a better worker and, if it comes from an average worker, more likely to see it as an effort to manage his or her image.

IMPLICATIONS: Getting the best out of staff

The research reveals the potential risks of being proactive and paints a more nuanced picture of the forces can that affect productivity.

The results suggest that a worker’s performance record represents a powerful cue influencing how managers evaluate their requests for feedback.

What seems to matter most is a worker’s track record: requests for feedback by better employees are interpreted as efforts to further enhance their performance, while requests by average worker are not. Nonetheless, managers do not necessarily believe the latter will be trying to manage his or her image, and nor is the way managers weigh up how often an employee seeks feedback strongly related to that worker’s record.

A key finding is that the effect of asking for feedback often will depend on a manager’s general beliefs about workers. Managers given to thinking staff do not generally change attribute frequent requests for feedback to an effort by an employee to boost his or her image. So the question of how often it is best to seek feedback will depend on characteristics of the manager and the quality of his or her relationship with a particular member of staff.

The research team’s conclusions have important implications for the workplace:

Organizations need to ensure that if staff seek feedback their managers do not see this merely as an effort to boost their image. Companies might address this by training all staff about the value of feedback, especially those managers who believe workers are unlikely to change and so do not appreciate the full value of feedback. Training these managers to believe that staff can improve can enhance their willingness to coach subordinates, distinguish between good and bad performance, and help them see the benefits of feedback for those average workers who need it the most.

Staff need to be cautious because seeking feedback can come at a price: paradoxically, employees need to have a sense of how they are perceived to be performing before approaching managers for feedback. Instead of seeking feedback directly, average workers need to employ more subtle strategies, such as asking colleagues and managers indirectly. It might also be wise to seek feedback from several managers, so that each is approached infrequently.

It is important for employees to get inside their manager’s head: if their supervisor is inclined to believe that people cannot change, they will not see feedback as of any use and so, in these cases, asking for it may be counterproductive. It might be wiser for an average performer to seek feedback from managers who are more inclined to believe they can change for the better.

 Related paper: Katleen E. M. de Stobbeleir, Susan J. Ashford and Mary F. Sully de Luque. 2010. Proactivity With Image in Mind: How Employee and Manager Characteristics Affect Evaluations of Proactive Behaviors. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology Volume 83, Issue 2, pages 347–369

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