When Feedback Attacks!

Author : Robert Bullock
Published: August 12, 2013

Did you know that only one-third of performance feedback interventions lead to increased performance? In fact, according to the most comprehensive study to date on performance feedback (Denisi & Kluger, 1996) researchers found that about 1/3 of the time feedback leads to performance, 1/3 of the time it does nothing, and 1/3 of the time it actually leads to decreased performance!

You might be asking "ok, but why does this matter for me as a consultant?" Think about it this way - if you're providing consulting services to an organization then at some level you ARE providing feedback to your clients. It might be feedback related to their marketing strategy, feedback related to their employee selection process, or more direct feedback to individual leaders. Therefore, it would be wise to understand the mechanics of why feedback often fails to obtain its primary objective (to improve performance or effectiveness).


You might be surprised to learn that the “time and place” for feedback is just as important as “how it’s delivered.”

For some reason, most of us carry the notion that feedback is powerful in any and all situations. However, research on feedback, learning, and motivation has shown that feedback can be harmful when given to employees that are engaged in (Denisi & Kluger, 1996):

Highly complex tasks

Very difficult tasks

Unfamiliar tasks


Why is feedback so ineffective in these situations? Because when tasks are complex or unfamiliar, telling someone that they are doing it wrong can change their focus. Instead of focusing their mental energy on the task at hand, it can cause them to direct so much of their mental energy towards protecting their image (i.e., not looking incompetent) that their performance is often subsequently impaired. On the other hand, when tasks are simple and familiar, feedback is associated with increased performance because making adjustments requires less cognitive focus. Therefore, feedback is much less effective at improving performance for difficult and unfamiliar tasks (Denisi & Kluger, 1996).

This presents a particular challenge to consultants. I mean, when are we ever brought in to help our clients with "simple" things?? Fear not, for below I have provided a wealth of research-based best-practices that are focused entirely on ensuring that your feedback will be effective in those tricky/sticky/icky situations!

--Denisi and Kluger found that, when feedback is combined with goal-setting (e.g., SMART goals, learning goals), it can lead to increased performance even on difficult and unfamiliar tasks! Why? Because when people are focused on learning and goal attainment, they tend to focus less on protecting their image and more on learning and mastering the task at hand. However, for this to be effective, goals must be in place first, before specific feedback is given.

When you're working directly with a client on improving his/her performance, have them set their own personal learning/development goals rather than specific performance goals. Setting learning goals is dually important. It (a) helps take the focus away from image protection and (b) directs it towards mastering new tasks. Doing this will encourage your client to respond better to feedback, put forth more effort, and persist in the face of greater obstacles - particularly when tasks are difficult to learn (Denisi & Kluger, 1996; Dweck, 1986).

When feedback threatens your client's self-esteem, it can be particularly ineffective. When it fosters self-esteem it can boost performance (Bandura, 1986)

You should provide feedback as soon as possible after observing a specific behavior. The shorter the gap between behavior and feedback the better (Noe, 2010)

When helping your clients learn new things, it is important to reinforce their positive behavior (Noe, 2010)

When people experience difficulties as the result of making mistakes when learning new tasks, sometimes NOT providing them with feedback can help them engage in positive learning experiences by exploring different ways and processing information on their own accord to identify correct responses (Noe, 2010)

When giving feedback to clients, it is important to attribute past performance to factors that are within the trainee’s control, as opposed to external factors (Martocchio & Dulebohn, 1994)

Happy feedback!

References: Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall, Inc. Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41, 1040-1048. Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 254-284. Martocchio, J. J., & Dulebohn, J. (2006). Performance feedback effects in training: The role of perceived controllability. Personnel Psychology, 47, 357-373. Noe, R. A. (2010). Employee training and development. New York: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

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