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Feedback: The Most Powerful Behavior Changer

Feedback: The Most Powerful Behavior Changer

Advances in science and industry are based on the proven principle that feedback provides a system, machine, investigation or experiment with the information necessary to make incremental performance adjustments that lead to success.

In today’s knowledge and service economy, people are an organization’s primary assets and human behavior the lynchpin on which success or failure hangs.  Behavioral science makes clear that the same principle holds true for the human system – the performer needs effective feedback to change behavior and improve performance.  Then, why do many organizations struggle with putting this principle into practice?

Organizations commonly base their human resource performance management system on an annual employee-manager performance review, a process meant to provide feedback but which often yields more angst than benefit. A look at some of the behavioral principles behind effective feedback will show why.

According to behavioral scientist Leslie Wilk Braksick, Ph.D. (2007), to be most effective, feedback should be:

  • Pinpointed – carefully chosen to impact behaviors that are important to the organization
  • Specific – provided relating to a clearly described behavior that the performer needs to begin, stop, increase or decrease
  • Objective – observable, measurable, not judgmental and not an interpretation
  • Encouraging – positive feedback is more powerful than negative and should be used at a ratio of at least 4 positive to 1 negative, but even negative feedback can be “constructive”
  • Immediate – delivered as soon as possible after the behavior occurs
  • Important – significant to the performer

Although performance reviews are often Pinpointed to previously established objectives and usually Important to the performer, by their very nature they are not Immediate.  And because they are based on a year’s performance rather than immediately observed behavior, they are seldom Specific or Objective.  Leaving the question of whether they are Encouraging open, we see that at best they possess 50% of the criteria for feedback proven to have the desired impact on future behavior.

Many organizations are replacing or supplementing annual reviews with ongoing performance management “coaching.”  Those that train their supervisors and managers and hold them accountable to provide focused, encouraging and actionable feedback based on the principles above are experiencing real performance improvement.

Research shows that providing planned, consistent, effective feedback improves performance of employees at various levels and engaged in various activities such as repetitive tasks, sales, customer service and management.  It also can positively impact safe and healthy behaviors and, according to Braksick, when implemented broadly across an organization, has a measureable impact on profitability.

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