Feedback is a daily occurrence. Workers get it constantly from their managers and colleagues, and how we react to it can have implications for job performance and career success. Staff at companies around the world will soon start the laborious process of annual performance reviews as their bosses seek to inspire, admonish, or more likely, explain away this year’s pay freeze. The trouble is, our reactions to feedback may not be what the manager intended, and may not be in our best interests either.
Understanding how we respond to feedback would help a boss who genuinely wants to influence staff behaviour. Our study set out to shed light on this: is feedback satisfying or useful? Does it change our thinking or behaviour? And how can we give better feedback to others?
Past research suggests that people respond better to “enhancing” or wholly positive feedback, rather than anything negative or critical. This is because we are striving for self-enhancement or positive information. Less is known about how people take “improving” feedback, where a negative or neutral starting point becomes more positive over time. Some findings indicate that individuals are eager for this kind of improvement information. Both these approaches – “enhancing” or “improving” – might have their benefits.
Across our experiments, 212 participants completed a series of tests assessing academic and life skills, and were given one of these types of feedback. We examined the potential psychological consequences on things like self-esteem or optimistic beliefs about future performance. We also looked at behavioural outcomes like the effect on people’s persistence. This is crucial stuff for businesses, where feedback is often targeted towards both enhancement and improvement, and is delivered on multiple occasions to people who at least appear to want it.
It turns out that the consistently positive message from the enhancing feedback made more of an impact both psychologically and behaviourally. People found it satisfying, and more satisfying and useful than the improving feedback.
Enhancing feedback also resulted in more optimistic beliefs about future performance on similar tests, higher levels of general satisfaction and self-esteem, and more willingness to persist on similar tests in the future.
Some managers might baulk at that message. Do they really have to put a cheery gloss on every pronouncement? Not quite. That relentless positivity got less satisfying and useful over time, and in the longer term, the improving feedback, that starts more negative and ramps up the good news as it continues, was rated as more satisfying. The improving style of feedback also resulted in a stronger sense of self-improvement.
For bosses trying to get the best out of staff, the message is pretty clear. If you want quick results then go in to the performance review with a smile and a message of joyful hope. In the short term, enhancing feedback fuels a multitude of processes. It increases satisfaction, self-esteem, and optimism and makes people more focused on performing well in the future. It will likely give you more bang for your buck in a one-time assessment.
This will be a tempting route. Who doesn’t want a workshop or an office full of (even temporarily) upbeat staff? But there is potentially more to be gained from feedback that charts an upward trajectory and takes its time to bring employees to a positive conclusion.
Taking it on the chin
But what does this all mean for employees? How should they adjust their responses as their year’s work is being picked over? Well, staff should start by understanding why they are emotionally charged after receiving feedback.
Feedback clearly has an effect on self-esteem, and the emotions felt are reactions to an increase or decrease in that self-esteem. If your annual review is going badly, there are, fortunately, ways to mitigate the potential threats. One is to develop self-compassion – kind feelings towards the self. Many exercises exist to develop self-compassion; 21 minutes of Affectionate Breathing might just do the trick.
Perhaps more importantly, employees should also develop a good rapport with their managers. This isn’t only good advice for getting along in your career, it could help you separate the feelings from the behavioural reactions and understand the manager’s feedback intentions. That is, neutral or negative feedback may be delivered with the intention of helping an employee grow and develop over time. In fact, people are more likely to accept negative feedback if it comes from a credible source and is delivered in a considerate way. Unfortunately, not all of us will be that lucky.