Since many of you will not have the patience to read through a 68-page paper, below are the key highlights from this study.
The overall premise
The team starts off framing the challenge: various empirical studies have found that feedback interventions designed to illuminate employees’ blind spots don’t always yield the desired outcomes. Feedback from others is intended to motivate improvement but it often has a demotivating impact, even to high-performing employees. One meta-analysis found that one-third of feedback interventions actually resulted in lower post-feedback performance.
Academic research of the reasons for the mismatch between intention and outcome has centered around a few mediating factors:
- Poor design of the instruments/programs — for example, utilizing performance review for both compensation changes and developmental purposes leading to positively skewed feedback.
- Poorly executed feedback — the feedback itself is not captured/delivered effectively: the content itself is garbled or confusing, numerical ratings without behavioral guidance on how to improve, etc.
- Contextual features affecting the feedback — things that are happening outside of the feedback itself, such as the organizational culture, or level of trust, or even things outside the organization such as the external economic environment leading to distorted feedback.
While these three factors do offer paths for improving feedback effectiveness, in aggregate there is little evidence that feedback interventions, even using some of the best practices on these fronts, have systematically led to organizational level benefits.
The team, therefore, proposes a fourth driver which they set out to explore: the discrepancies (blindspots) identified by the feedback are demotivating. The discrepancies, the gaps between the way the person views themselves, and the way they are reflected through the feedback received from others, represent threats to recipients’ positive self-concept. Because the self-concept is maintained and evolves through interactions with others, feedback recipients will try to avoid these threats by minimizing the way they collaborate with peers who provided them with disconfirming feedback, often in ways that lead to a reduction in performance (which heavily relies on effective collaboration).
The theory can be illustrated as follows:
To explore the theory in more detail, the team formulated the following hypothesis:
- People are likely to perceive disconfirming feedback as more threatening to their self-concepts than feedback that is not disconfirming.
- People are more likely to eliminate a discretionary relationship with a person providing disconfirming feedback than they are to eliminate a discretionary relationship with a person providing feedback that is not disconfirming.
- The perceived threat to one’s self-concept mediates the relationship between disconfirming feedback and the elimination of a discretionary relationship.
- The greater the number of a person’s obligatory reviews are disconfirming, the greater the negative change in future constraint.
- Eliminating discretionary relationships with individuals who provided disconfirming feedback is negatively associated with subsequent performance.
- Decreases in constraint in response to disconfirming feedback by obligatory relationships is negatively associated with subsequent performance.
For simplicity’s sake, I would describe the “decrease in constraint” mentioned in #4 and #6 as a change to the collaboration pattern between the recipient and the individuals who provided the feedback.
The team ran two experiments to test their hypothesis, a field study, and a lab experiment.
The team tested hypotheses 2,4, 5 and 6 using data collected from “a vertically integrated food manufacturing and agribusiness company located in the Western United States”, which given additional details about the way the organization runs, revealed it as The Morning Star Company.
Morning Star uses a fluid organizational structure where every season each employee signs a “Colleague Letter of Understanding” (CLOU) with the employees that they’ll be collaborating with during the season. These data, providing insights into the dynamic changes in collaboration patterns across the organization by applying Organizational Network Analysis techniques, was the critical piece connecting the more standard inputs (feedback data) and outcomes (bonus allocations as a proxy for change in performance).
The team tested hypotheses 1,2 and 3 through a well-crafted lab experiment.
Filtering for people who value creativity and view themselves as creatives, participants were invited to perform an online assignment in which they’ll be paired with another participant and randomly assigned to be either the writer or evaluator of the task. However, all participants were assigned to be writers, with the software playing the role of the evaluator.
In the first task, participants were given 5 mins to write a creative short story that is at least 200 words. There were then assigned to one of the two conditions, receiving either confirming or disconfirming feedback. They were then presented with the second task, answering 10 trivia questions under time pressure. If both they and their partner will answer both correctly — they’d be given a bonus payment for their participation.
BUT they were also given a choice: whether to stick with their current partner or be randomly assigned a new one.
Results and Conclusions
The field study found a strong positive relationship between disconfirming feedback and the likelihood that the individual receiving the negative feedback drops the relationship in the subsequent year (Hypothesis 2). And the greater the number of an employee’s non-discretionary reviews that are disconfirming, the lower that employee’s constraint in subsequent periods (Hypothesis 4). The results suggesting that the greater the extent to which individuals engage in the practice of dropping discretionary relationships that provide disconfirming reviews, the lower their performance will be in the subsequent year, were not statistically significant, therefore rejecting Hypothesis 5. The team did find evidence that decreases in constraint in response to disconfirming feedback by obligatory relationships were negatively associated with subsequent performance (Hypothesis 6).
The lab experiment showed the participants did find the disconfirming feedback as more threatening (Hypothesis 1, an average score of 2.7 vs. 1.5 on a 7-point scale), and were more likely to switch partners for the second task (Hypothesis 2, 30% vs. 9%). Finally, the perceived threat mediated the relationship between disconfirming feedback and the elimination of the discretionary relationship (Hypothesis 3).
The team articulates the conclusion from their study succinctly
Feedback processes are nearly ubiquitous in modern organizations. Managers employ these processes naively, assuming employees will respond to them with dutiful efforts to improve. But we find that disconfirming feedback shakes the foundation of a core aspect of employees’ self-concept, causing them to respond by reshaping their networks in order to shore up their professional identity and salvage their self-concept. This reshaping of employee networks contributes to lowered performance — a result ironically at odds with the ultimate goal of performance feedback. Our research offers an expanded view of social capital in interpersonal settings, and suggests that organizations must finds ways to fulfill employees’ need for a socially bolstered self-concept — that developmental feedback in the absence of this self-confirmation offers little hope for improving performance outcomes.