Feedback Fundamentals

 “You cannot improve what you don’t measure’"– Edward Deming

If I have to slightly tweak Deming’s words, I would say “you cannot improve what you don’t get feedback on”.

It is that time of the year when most of the organizations are working through their annual performance review rituals. Managers face a challenging task of giving a satisfactory review, rating and raise. What was once a purely annual performance review, has undergone some changes - many organizations conduct periodic – quarterly or half-yearly reviews to ease the process. Periodic review meetings help to avoid surprises and help individuals improve their performance on a continuous basis. Most importantly they help in improving the process of review itself.

One of the fundamental processes in the performance appraisal cycle is the process of giving feedback – useful information for the receiver to help him/her to make the necessary corrections in behaviour so that performance improves. This is nevertheless a tricky process since giving feedback is not an easy thing to do – it needs a fair amount of judgement, sensitivity, balance and empathy. And that’s not all – it has to be based on valid data and should motivate the individual to change !

In the rest of the article, let us try to understand the process of feedback and how it can be used to motivate behaviour change.

What is feedback ?  

Information is a crucial need for individuals and organizations today. People are constantly searching for information that will help them make decisions, get direction and to confirm their beliefs. Human beings are information processing systems. Since information is an important influence in changing individual behaviour, it is worthwhile to give some attention to it.

Feedback is information in a certain form. The concept of feedback developed during 1950s, during the development of a field of study called Cybernetics.  Feedback was defined as information regarding actual performance or the results of the activities of a system to control its performance.

Not all information is feedback – only information which is used to control the future functioning of the system is considered as feedback. In mechanical systems, the feedback can be built into the design of the system and thereafter the feeding back and the correction happens automatically.

In social systems, such as organizations, the feedback is provided not just to correct the performance, but to bring about learning. This is an important distinction since for sustained improvement in performance to happen, learning needs to happen. Only learning can bring about change in ‘how’ work is done, and not just ‘what’ is done.

In organizations, the feedback process is not automatic – even if the feedback information is available, it may be ignored. Therefore conscious efforts have to be taken to collect information and feed it back.  

Because of the above mentioned reasons, managers need to pay attention to the process of how feedback can be used to bring about behaviour change.

Just giving the feedback information to an individual is not enough for inducing change – the information and the process of giving first has to motivate behaviour change. In the absence of motivation, it would be difficult to get the individual to change his/her behaviour.

To summarize, feedback can help a person to
  • get motivated 
  • to learn and 
  • to change behaviour and provide direction in which change has to happen. 

Further, in organizational setups, information for feedback has to be systematically created, collected and analysed and made available for easy access.  

Please note that behaviour change is a complex issue since human beings and organizations are complex systems in themselves and behaviour becomes a function of multiple forces. Therefore the feedback process alone may not bring about change but has to be accompanied by other methods such training, coaching, context change, etc.

Using Data for Feedback

Feedback is information and data. It is important to collect valid data for giving feedback. Bringing valid data for discussions brings in lot of credibility to the feedback process.

Before we look at what is valid data, let us look at the two types of data that constitute feedback. They are qualitative data and quantitative data.

Quantitative Data pertains to individual’s work performance results such as productivity, quality and measurable contributions towards achieving team/organization goals. (eg., number of case studies prepared, timesheet adherence, innovative ideas generated, etc).

Qualitative Data includes information about work performance results that cannot be measured nevertheless can be observed. These are behaviours exhibited by people. Examples, attitude and enthusiasm shown towards work, winning a client’s trust, supporting another team member in her learning, spreading unnecessary rumours which de-motivate others, intentionally not contributing to group problem-solving efforts, etc.

It is important to distinguish between these 2 kinds of data since the latter is collected mainly through observation and inference and is subject to interpretation and error while the former is easily available if the organization has processes in place to collect this kind of data and they are easily accessible.

This leads us to the question of using valid data for feedback – if it is quantitative data, how objective and relevant it is; if it is qualitative data, how much it has been endorsed/verified by customers or peers or supervisors. Remember incomplete information cannot be valid. Share all relevant information that helps the individual in understanding the feedback. 

Sometimes sharing the feelings around the data helps makes the information more valid. As an example, if a team member’s delay in her contribution to a group task, caused a delay overall, this could lead to frustration and dismay to the other team members and the manager. In addition to pointing out the delay in work sharing feelings generated during that time could help things to be put in perspective. The same goes for achievement in tasks that contributed to positive feelings for other organizational members. Pointing out such feelings brings forth the impact created by performance not only on goals but also on people.

While giving feedback be cognizant about which type of data you are using for what. While quantitative data is used to analyse and show gaps in performance, qualitative data can be used to indicate the behaviour change that is needed to bridge the gap.

For example, if an individual has not been able to achieve the goals pertaining to productivity, quantitative data could show how much gap exists in terms of numbers. Whereas qualitative data could reveal what is the behaviour that was lacking in the process of achieving the goal – is it a lack of inclination to learn the required skills, or a tendency to not seek support when required or something else. Sometimes qualitative data could also reveal factors which became obstacles for the person to achieve the goals. These factors could be lack of clarity in goals, timely availability of tools or resources required for completing the job, etc – factors over which the individual had no control.

How can you bring about motivation for change by giving feedback ?

Giving feedback itself is a motivating factor – at the fundamental level it shows that the task a person is doing is significant to the organization and that the person is being offered help and appreciation to improve her performance.

Second, if the person sees information which is inconsistent with the person’s beliefs or understanding, it creates anxiety. To resolve this anxiety and inconsistent perception, people are motivated to take action. As an example, if the individual’s performance in improving customer satisfaction has not met the goals, providing valid data to show the performance gap, causes anxiety and provokes the person to resolve the anxiety by taking action to bridge the gap. Sometimes the individual might be under a wrong perception of achieving the goals whereas data collected for feedback might prove otherwise. Such feedback causes disconfirmation of perceptions for the individual and provokes the person to take action.

It is to be noted that the right amount of anxiety motivates action, whereas too little or too high an anxiety may not motivate action.

Third, expectation of rewards motivates people to change. The rewards could be extrinsic rewards such as appreciation, recognition, new opportunities, benefits or monetary rewards. When you are providing feedback, link the changes expected to these rewards.

What about intrinsic rewards ? Are there intrinsic rewards in the feedback process ?  We know that goal-setting and feedback go hand-in-hand - the goal-setting process inherently includes giving feedback since an analysis of the past performance is very much required to set the future goals. 
Goal-setting in itself is a motivating factor – every quarter when I review and revise my goals, it gives me new energy and sets a direction to achieve them.

The goal-setting process inherently includes giving feedback since an analysis of the past performance is very much required to set the future goals. What is important here is that the goals chosen need to be adequately challenging and at the same time attainable for the individual. If the goals are too difficult to achieve, then it reduces the chance of getting a favourable feedback and becomes de-motivating. If the goals are not challenging enough, then they fail to motivate the person.
Thus feedback and goal-setting are intrinsically rewarding to provide the necessary motivation for change.

To summarize, feedback as information has to motivate people and set a direction to bring about change. Feedback should use valid data which could be either quantitative or qualitative and it is important to distinguish these kinds of data since they serve different purposes – the former is objective and is used to understand the gaps in performance results while the latter to understand how the results were achieved and is subjective. The feedback information has to motivate the person to change. In the absence of motivation real change cannot happen. The process of giving feedback, promise of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and the anxiety created due to the gap in performance provides the necessary motivation for people to change. Being aware of these factors will help you in having a fruitful feedback discussion process.

Reference :  Works of Clayton P. Alderfer


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