Business Insider Edition

An expert says there's only one good time to give your employees feedback, and it's not during a performance review

Shana Lebowitz , Business Insider US
 Mar 10, 2019, 07:46 PM
  • Feedback from a boss or a coworker isn't always effective, research suggests - especially if the feedback is negative.
  • Some experts recommend emphasizing an employee's value to the organization while delivering negative feedback.
  • The only truly effective time to give feedback, one expert says, is when a new employee starts, before they have a solid grasp of their job.


I recently read an article on the Cut about why everyone hates performance reviews, despite the fact that we haven't yet come up with a much better alternative.

One bit jumped out at me. "Almost everyone believes feedback is important and useful, but the research says, ehhh, that's not really quite true," Kevin Murphy, chair of work and employment studies at the University of Limerick and co-author of "Performance Appraisal and Management," told the Cut's Katie Heaney. "About a third of the time, feedback makes things better, about a third of the time feedback makes things worse, and about a third of the time it has no effect whatsoever."

Murphy is presumably referring to the results of a 1996 review, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, that found eyebrow-raising levels of "variability" in the effects of feedback interventions.

As a reporter for Business Insider, I've heard more than a few executives and workplace experts talk about the importance of feedback - from manager to employee, employee to manager, and one employee to another. Apparently, it only rarely works.

Interestingly, a more recent working paper, from researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, found that negative feedback is basically ineffective. As study coauthor Paul Green told the Harvard Business Review, "There's an assumption that what motivates people to improve is the realization that they're not as good as they think they are. But in fact, it just makes them go find people who will not shine that light on them."

That is to say, if your coworker says your work is too sloppy, you just might find another coworker to tell you it's impeccable.

And yet the recent trend in human-resources departments across industries appears to be increasing the amount of feedback employees receive. IBM, for example, ditched the annual performance review and replaced it with a real-time feedback app that supposedly encourages casual dialogue between coworkers.

Make sure an employee knows their value to the organization, even when they're being criticized

So does feedback ever work? Murphy told the Cut that feedback is constructive only right after an employee has been hired, before they really understand their job duties.

And in the 1996 review, the researchers propose "designing work or learning environments that encourage trial and error," so that employees can learn the hard way without their manager's interference. To be sure, these environments sound like they'd take time and effort to create - but the potential improvement in employee performance might be worth it.

As for Green, he told the Harvard Business Review that it can be helpful to affirm people's overall importance to the organization - i.e. letting them know their job isn't necessarily in jeopardy - while delivering negative feedback. "It's about accompanying negative feedback with validation of who people are and of their value to the organization," Green said. "And it's not even about providing it all the time. People just need to feel valued."

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