Why forward-looking feedback is more productive

Apr 15, 2021

Video Transcript

Narrator: Feedback is a useful tool that can improve our work. But it can also be extremely frustrating and leave us feeling unheard, unappreciated, and unmotivated. Research from Humanly Possible’s Jackie Gnepp, Chicago Booth’s Joshua Klayman, and their coauthors suggest a way of giving feedback that will more reliably lead to positive change. 

Jackie Gnepp: Surveys of businesspeople over the years have shown that they think feedback is really important—important to their success, important to their careers. And yet, they’re dissatisfied with the feedback they have. They think it would be crucially important if only it were good, but in point of fact, research shows that the effects of feedback on performance are highly variable, not always positive, and the most common effect of feedback is none at all. And feedback sometimes is difficult for relationships. It makes things tense. 

Joshua Klayman: There’s a lot of different functions of feedback in an organization or at work. And the one we’re particularly interested in is when the goal is to give feedback that helps the person improve. 

Narrator: The researchers surveyed more than 400 managers in Europe, Asia, and North America, asking them to describe instances at work when they received feedback. They also paired participants and had one person in each pair play the role of a supervising manager giving feedback to a subordinate manager. 

Joshua Klayman: The goal was explicitly: “You are giving them this feedback in order to help them improve their skills to make it more likely they’ll get future promotions.” And we did two studies using slightly different methods involving the role-playing. But in all cases, the people in our studies were experienced managers, and so we always did these in the context of a work experience. 

Narrator: The researchers learned some things that could extend beyond giving feedback in the office as well. 

Joshua Klayman: Managers giving feedback and those receiving feedback disagree on what psychologists call attributions, namely the reasons why things went the way they did. What happens is that the people giving feedback tend to be biased toward believing that whatever happened, good or bad, it was because of who you are, what skills you have, how hard you worked at it, things like that. When it’s a question of positive feedback, the people receiving the feedback agree with that. Yes, I did well because I have a lot of skills and I worked hard, and that sort of thing. But where they differ is when the feedback is negative. When the feedback is negative, the person giving it still thinks it’s because you lack certain abilities, or didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t pay enough attention. Whereas, I think, getting the feedback: “Well, no, it’s because of outside circumstances. The clients were impossible. The job was much too big for one person. There wasn’t enough time. I didn’t have enough resources.” And that difference is based on issues of self-esteem, basically. I don’t want to think badly about myself, so I do what psychologists call self-enhancement, which is I give myself extra credit for the good things, but especially I also do self-protection. 

Narrator: In other words, we don’t think things went wrong because of who we are or what we did, but because of outside circumstances that were beyond our control. 

Jackie Gnepp: You might imagine that, having a feedback discussion, the two parties would come to a meeting of the minds, but instead they drift farther apart. Because as you give me feedback that you think is constructive, I’m working to feel good about myself. I want to learn but I don’t want to think that I’m deficient. And I don’t want you to think that I didn’t work hard. 

Narrator: The research showed that differences in explanations for performance are larger after discussion than they were before. 

Joshua Klayman: So that’s sort of the bad-news thing we discovered. The good-news thing we discovered was a way to avoid that is to focus the conversation on the future. And we call that future-focused feedback. So don’t discuss the reasons why things went wrong in the past, but instead focus on what can we do going forward in the future to make things better. Some people, a lot of people, I think, have the intuition that you can’t figure out what to do next until you have diagnosed why things went wrong before. And it’s a strong intuition, but our research suggests that’s wrong. You can just move ahead to discussing how to fix things without having that counterproductive discussion about why things went wrong in the past. 

Jackie Gnepp: When we talk about the future, I know that I can change things for the better because the future has not yet happened. When you talk to me about what went wrong in the past, I’m really stuck. I can’t fix what happened back then. And so I’m less flexible about thinking maybe it’s something I should change.