By Jan Norr, Ph.D.
Feedback is such a ubiquitous term it’s easy to assume we all mean the same thing when we say it—and that we all know how to provide it. The truth is, when working to improve employee performance, not all feedback is equal. Learning how to provide effective performance feedback can make a significant difference when striving to help employees enhance their skills and reach your team and organizational goals.
What Is Performance Feedback?
Performance feedback is distinct from the more colloquial understanding of the term feedback, which is typically defined as helpful information or criticism.1 Performance feedback provides specific information relative to a goal or target regarding current performance.2 In addition, it requires the person giving feedback to explain what aspects of behavior need to change and typically relies on positive reinforcement to improve performance. In short, performance feedback builds on our general understanding of feedback and institutes a framework and rigor that drives results.
A Proven Track Record
Performance feedback, as we now understand it, originated in the 1970s as part of a systematic, data-oriented approach to maximize performance in the workplace. This approach, known as performance management, uses a combination of measurement, feedback, and reinforcement to develop and improve work-related skills.2 Supported by over 75 years of research in behavior analysis and behavior management, numerous scientific studies confirm the value of this approach to businesses and organizations. Performance feedback has proven to be2,3:
- Practical – The feedback encompasses a set of specific actions aimed at improving performance for various tasks for employees at every level of the organization.
- Lasting – If done correctly, performance improves quickly and will become habitual.
- Easy to implement – You do not need a background in psychology to implement these changes effectively.
- Morale boosting – The nature of the feedback and reinforcement improves relationships and makes the workplace more enjoyable.
To attain these results, it’s necessary to understand how a performance management strategy depends on measurement, feedback, and reinforcement.
According to the performance management model, providing optimal feedback requires you to first collect detailed information about your employee’s existing behavior, accurately analyze this data, and objectively understand how the target behavior is changing. Though it may not always be possible to dedicate the resources needed for this level of data collection and detailed analysis, you should make it your goal to gather and analyze as much data as you can before a feedback session. When striving to collect useful performance-based data2:
- Observe the behavior – Be sure to watch the target performance, such as during a live sales call or a training role-play.
- Take detailed notes on observations – Focus on specific things the employee does or says, including what you wish to praise as well as what you’d like them to improve.
- Avoid relying on outcome data – Such data does not tell you how the outcome was attained or provide information about the behaviors of interest.
- Do not rely on assumptions or attributions – An honest analysis of your observations will dispel assumptions and help you focus your feedback and reinforcement on the target behavior.
Remember, the data collected during your observation enables you to evaluate a behavior relative to your selected goal or target. This evaluation, in turn, will drive your feedback session.
Giving performance feedback while training or coaching can be hard, even uncomfortable. Having a strong framework that guides your feedback session can help you overcome your discomfort and keep you focused on the specific information you’ve gathered and the goals you wish to achieve. The eight characteristics outlined below can function as this framework and help ensure your feedback will maximize performance.2
Effective performance feedback is:
- Specific – Clearly indicate what your employee should do to improve.
- Controllable – Focus on some aspect of behavior the employee can manage.
- Immediate – Present feedback as closely following the performance as possible.
- Individualized – Hone your feedback to focus on each employee’s specific behavior.
- Goal oriented – Present your feedback in relation to previous performance and/or future goals or subgoals.
- Positive – When at all possible, be encouraging and upbeat.
- Simple – Ensure your feedback is easy to understand.
- Data driven – Present your feedback in graphic form when possible.
As previously stated, superior performance management includes measurement, feedback, and—importantly—reinforcement. Feedback alone is often not enough to strengthen performance; it’s critical to combine it with the right positive reinforcement. To make your performance feedback that much more impactful, look for ways to2:
- Deliver praise – Be specific about the performance, focusing on what the employee did correctly or well.
- Recognize improvement – Avoid focusing only on the negatives that need correction by recognizing improvements towards the target behavior.
- Reward effort – Be sure to acknowledge individual efforts made for self-improvement.
- Celebrate success – Realize that reaching the subgoal or end goal informs you that your feedback worked—it’s time to celebrate!
Learning From Experience
Honing your ability to provide effective feedback is a career-long process. To improve, take time to reflect on—and learn from—each feedback session you conduct. This process can take many forms, from completing a detailed self-assessment created by your organization to keeping a personal journal recording your insights. No matter how you conduct your post-feedback reflection, always note both what went well and what you’d like to improve upon.
Keep in mind that performance management is an expansive area of ongoing research, practice, and study. Though the practices outlined here are intended to provide insight into this model, they are in no way exhaustive. To learn more, I highly recommend the book Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness by Aubrey C. Daniels and Jon S. Bailey. Like effective feedback itself, the performance management model they discuss can provide ongoing insights that will improve your coaching—and your team—as you evolve and refine your goals.
- Get looped in on ‘feedback.’ Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-history-of-feedback. Accessed September 23, 2021.
- Daniels AC, Bailey JS. Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness. 5thed. Aubrey Daniels International, Inc.; 2014.
- Prue DM, Fairbank JA. Performance feedback in organizational behavior management: a review. J Organ Behav Manage. 1981;3(1):1-16. doi:10.1300/J075V03N01_01
Jan Norr is a part-time instructional designer who has been developing training for over 20 years. Her experience includes creating training protocols for canine olfactory studies, training programs for personal fitness trainers, and workshops for corporate clients. Jan earned a doctorate in the experimental analysis of behavior from Auburn University. She has served part-time as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington for more than 10 years, teaching both online and traditional courses on topics such as drug use and abuse, health psychology, experimental psychology, and applied behavior analysis.