When giving feedback, focus on the future

Sarah Kuta | Sep 23, 2020

When managers give performance-improvement feedback to employees, they presumably want the conversations to result in positive changes—not to inspire defensiveness, excuses for poor performance, or skepticism of the managers’ point of view. 

Offering forward-looking feedback can help keep such conversations productive, suggests research by Humanly Possible’s Jackie Gnepp, Chicago Booth’s Joshua Klayman, Victoria University of Wellington’s Ian O. Williamson, and University of Chicago’s Sema Barlas.

Performance-improvement feedback often fails when managers spend too much time diagnosing or analyzing what went wrong in the past, according to the researchers. When managers and employees talk about possible next steps and solutions, however, employees tend to be more receptive to the feedback and more likely to intend to act on it, the researchers find. 

Recipients respond just as well to predominately negative feedback as they do to positive feedback, so long as the conversation focuses primarily on how the recipient can best move forward, the research suggests.

“Most organizations and most managers want their workers to perform well,” write Gnepp, Klayman, Williamson, and Barlas. “Most workers wish to succeed at their jobs. Everyone benefits when feedback discussions develop new ideas and solutions and when the recipients of feedback are motivated to make changes based on those.”

The researchers surveyed more than 400 middle and upper managers who reflected on recent work-based feedback situations. When the managers received negative feedback, they tended to doubt their supervisor’s accuracy and qualifications.

Recipients of negative feedback also tended toward self-protection and self-enhancement, avoiding responsibility for their failures while claiming credit for their successes, the study finds. Recipients were prone to reject the feedback and to blame their poor performance on bad luck or task demands, factors that were outside their control.

In two other experiments, pairs of managers role-played performance-review discussions and answered questions about the meetings. Managers and employees often disagreed about the causes of poor performance, and this disagreement hurt the employees’ intention to change their behavior moving forward. A discussion perceived as future-focused didn’t reduce the amount of disagreement, but it nonetheless helped employees accept feedback and move toward change. 

On the basis of these results, the researchers offer a template for future-focused performance-improvement conversations that starts with managers clearly stating the goal of improving future performance. Managers and employees should next discuss performance expectations, and then develop targets, milestones, and solutions together.

Critical feedback should be part of the conversation too, but managers should avoid dwelling too much on the causes or explanations of past poor performance.

“A lot of times, those discussions devolve into, ‘Let’s talk about whose fault it was,’” says Klayman. “What we say is, instead, you don’t need to do that. You can talk about what to do in the future without going through the difficult diagnosis phase first.”