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When Feedback Attacks!! (when, how, and why feedback can hurt performance)

Did you know that only about 30% of performance feedback interventions actually lead to increased performance?  In fact, according to the most comprehensive study to date on performance feedback (Kluger & DeNisi, 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!  If I was a gambler, there is no way that I would place a bet on a random instance of performance feedback helping performance vs. not helping it…  The good news is this – there are factors that can increase your chances that feedback will actually lead to improved performance.  You might be surprised however, to learn that the “time and place” for feedback is just as important as “how it’s delivered.”

When does Feedback Attack?

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 (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996):

  • Complex tasks
  • Difficult tasks
  • Unfamiliar tasks

 Importance of Self-Image

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 (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).

What can You Do?

But what if you still need to give feedback to employees that are being trained in or are tasked with complex/difficult/unfamiliar tasks?  Don’t worry – there’s a solution.  Kluger and DeNisi 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 employees are more 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.  This is particularly important in employee training or other learning situations.

Best Practices for Feedback that Boosts Learning and Performance 

  • During training, have employees set their own learning goals and avoid 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 employees to respond better to feedback, put forth more effort, and persist in the face of greater obstacles – particularly when tasks are difficult to learn (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996; Dweck, 1986).  Sample learning goals for managers who are learning how to give more effective feedback might include: 
    • Identify three ways that I can improve the quality of feedback I give to my direct reports
    • Practice giving feedback in a way that boosts self-confidence to a colleague while working on a difficult project, and ask him/her for feedback on your feedback (pretty meta!)
    • Apply Industrial-Organizational Psychology research to improve my performance management processes (to start on this, here are some relevant articles)
  • When feedback threatens trainee self-efficacy it is ineffective, but when it fosters self-esteem it can boost performance (Bandura, 1986)
  • Feedback should be provided as soon as possible after the behavior (Noe, 2010)
  • Positive behavior needs to be reinforced through praise during learning tasks (Noe, 2010)
  • When employees experience difficulties during practice as a result of their own mistakes, not providing feedback can actually lead to positive learning experiences as employees explore different approaches and process information on their own accord to identify correct responses (Noe, 2010)
  • When giving feedback during training, it is important to attribute past performance to factors that are within the trainee’s control, as opposed to external factors (Martocchio & Dulebohn, 1994)
  • Start thinking about feedback as a continuous ongoing process of learning and development, not as a yearly closed-door performance conversation

By following the practices above, you can bet that your feedback won’t attack your employees image, self-esteem, and performance.

Happy feedback!



 Additional Resources:


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall, Inc.
Dweck, C. S. (198
6). 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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2 Responses to “When Feedback Attacks!! (when, how, and why feedback can hurt performance)”

  1. Charles Jennings August 23, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    Robert, thank you for an excellent article. Well-researched and providing clear guidance.

    One area that I think it’s worth expanding on is the differential between feedback on performance and feedback on personality. The Corporate Leadership Board carried out a survey some years ago that indicated that feedback on personality strengths has greater impact on performance than both feedback on performance strengths and performance weaknesses.

    Having been involved gathering data for the study – I was CLO at one of the 15 global businesses the CLC worked with – I have always put the differential down to the fact that feedback on performance is inherently backward-looking while while feedback on personality (“this is what you’re suited to” … “this is what you can do well”..) is inherently forward-looking.

    Not wanting to promote our work at the 70:20:10 Forum, but there is a summary of the CLC findings on slide 36 here:


  2. Robert Bullock August 23, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

    Thanks for your comment and insights Charles – that is some very interesting research! I definitely agree with the 70-20-10 framework, which is well-supported in the literature (also a big fan of Lombardo & Eichinger’s work). I am intrigued by the concept of personality-oriented feedback, because in the past it has always been something to shy away from, or at least feedback on things that are out of the employee’s control to change. This seems different though – more like a developmentally oriented, strengths-based approach. I look forward to hearing more about this.

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