Engineers have linked the concepts of feedback and enhanced performance since the time of the industrial revolution, but the term “feedback” was coined only in 1948 by cybernetic theorist Norbert Weiner. In this early work, feedback was a signal which indicated a discrepancy between the goal of a system and its current state. Based on feedback, systems could recalibrate and improve performance. Research on the concept expanded rapidly as managers came to believe that effectively communicated feedback could increase the motivation and performance of individual employees. Given this understanding, researchers worked to understand the psychological mechanisms people used to encode performance signals and adjust their work output. However, by the 1980s, it became obvious that the cybernetic model was only modestly successful in accounting for the complexity of human feedback processes. Further progress would come when researchers addressed such neglected factors as the linguistic qualities of feedback messages, relational and cultural context, interactivity, and the construction of meaning (Cusella 1987; Fairhurst 2001).
Traditional Theoretical Concepts
Discussion of feedback often begins with its context. Interpersonal contexts such as performance evaluation interviews have received much of the attention from communication researchers and practitioners. However, system contexts are of primary importance, as when corporations receive feedback from the stock market, environmental protesters, and other entities. Formal feedback contexts are different from informal ones, in that the former may be regulated by law, work procedure, and prescribed roles. A supervisor may share performance feedback informally over a cup of coffee or in the formal context of a required annual review. Finally, feedback is interpreted with reference to the goals or standards of individuals or systems. The nature of the goal, whether it is chosen or imposed by an outside entity, and the extent to which the goal is realistic, are among the contextual factors that shape employee interpretations of performance feedback (Latham & Locke 1991).
The form of feedback is another much-studied factor. Researchers use the term valence when describing positive or negative feedback. Positive feedback communicates satisfactory or accelerated progress toward a performance goal. Negative feedback is corrective; it suggests unsatisfactory performance. Specificity refers to the amount of detail in the performance message. Specific feedback contains more information that can be used in the modification of performance. Feedback frequency refers to rate of communication. More frequent messages create more opportunities for adjustments in performance. Timeliness is a measure of the delay between a performance and the feedback that follows.
The source of feedback is an important variable. Feedback can be derived from the task, as when a surgeon observes improvement in a patient’s vital signs during an operation. However, feedback is typically social in nature. Andrews and Kacmar (2001) confirmed that employees differentiate among sources including organizational, supervisory, peer, and the self. A key research issue is the priority given to each of these sources by employees. Feedback from a low-priority source may have limited effects on performance. In contrast, feedback from high-credibility sources is weighted more heavily.
Contemporary Issues In Interpersonal Feedback
Much contemporary communication research considers feedback as an interpersonal phenomenon, typically involving interactions between leaders and members. Whereas cybernetic models tended to view recipients of feedback as passive, newer interpersonal models acknowledge that partners actively seek feedback (Ashford & Cummings 1983; Larson 1989). Feedback seeking can be accomplished through inquiry, as when employees seek informal evaluation from a supervisor or co-worker. A more indirect monitoring process can also be used. This may involve noting others’ reactions to a task performance or comparing one’s own behavior to that which is being rewarded.
In contrast to early work that focused primarily on downward feedback, more recent research has examined feedback communicated upward in organizational hierarchies. Supervisors tend to overestimate the amount of upward feedback they receive. In fact, limited feedback is communicated from low-power to high-power employees. That which is delivered tends to be unrealistically positive. Bad news rarely travels upward, in part because employees fear being blamed. One consequence is that organizational decision makers fail to adjust course because they remain unaware of unfavorable business circumstances. Leaders who maintain strong communication relationships with employees and reward upward feedback may overcome the tendency to suppress negative information. Upward feedback may be related to the ethical climate of an organization. Organizations that foster the upward expression of constructive dissent are more likely to detect ethical lapses and make needed adjustments (Kassing 2002). In contrast, in organizations that suppress dissent employees may feel compelled to hide their ethical concerns or express them anonymously to outside sources. Some organizations foster this kind of upward feedback by establishing special communication channels for ethical complaints (e.g., telephone “hotlines”) and employment protections for “internal whistleblowers.”
The relatively recent term 360-degree feedback describes the practice of seeking performance information from multiple raters rather than a single source (Atwater & Waldman 1998). This approach acknowledges that employees function within a web of work relationships. In a 360-degree feedback process, the typical leader receives performance feedback from lower-level employees, peers, supervisors, customers, suppliers, and other more distant sources. This approach is now widely used to evaluate and develop the communication skills of managers and team leaders.
Feedback message quality is an important concern of contemporary communication research. Here the concern is with the message features that promote positive or negative outcomes. For example, the degree to which negatively valenced feedback is delivered with consideration for the recipient’s identity may determine the degree to which it is accepted (Larson 1989). At the same time, overly tactful feedback can be misconstrued when the recipient concludes that no substantive change in behavior is necessary. Feedback seekers may frame their messages so as to deflect blame for poor performance or to encourage positive responses.
Contemporary Issues In Feedback Systems
At the systems level, feedback is frequently associated with organizational learning (Weick & Westley 1996). Organizations increasingly exist in fragmented, changing, competitive environments. Accordingly, they foster cultural practices which aggressively question traditional ways of doing business and cultivate continuous performance feedback from external sources. In learning organizations, feedback seeking is embedded in such functions as new product development and employee evaluation. Similarly, the importance of feedback from external sources is associated with the functioning of decision-making groups. Effective groups seek external information as part of a reality checking process that curbs excessive conformity. External feedback supplements a group’s internal resources and reduces chances for group think. For Weick and his colleagues, feedback from the external environment varies in the extent to which it is subject to multiple interpretations or equivocality. Highly equivocal feedback requires more communicative cycles (e.g., staff meetings) as the organizational system processes the meaning of external cues.
Feedback can also be conceptualized as a control chain rather than a singular message (Fairhurst 2001). From this point of view, the patterns of feedback that define dyadic or group systems are of more concern than individual communicators. Interpretation of feedback messages is influenced by the parties’ shared communication history, including past criticisms and adaptive responses. Feedback exchanges not only result in adjustments in task performance, they also define relational control. For example, the act of offering performance feedback is a means by which leaders assert power in relationships with members. By unconditionally accepting feedback, employees affirm the leader’s relational position; in contesting feedback members signal an unwillingness to accede relational control. As Fairhurst has noted, in contrast to traditional hierarchical relationships, some leader–member relationships are characterized by patterns of shared control and mutual feedback.
Measurement And Findings
Progress has been made on a variety of feedback measures (Fairhurst 2001). For example, processes for multi-rater evaluation have been refined in recent years. Coding systems have been developed for assessing control chains, valence, sources, style, and other dimensions of the feedback process. Yet relatively few studies have assessed naturally occurring feedback interactions, or carefully coded the qualities of effective feedback messages. Exceptions include a study by Zorn and Leichty (1991), who found that effective messages were responsive to the identity concerns of the recipient.
Research on the effectiveness of feedback processes is still evolving, and results are subject to numerous qualifications. Effectiveness is typically defined in terms of receiver acceptance and performance enhancement. Research suggests that recipients prefer positive feedback over negative and respond more favorably when messages are adapted to their unique circumstances and identity concerns. Constructive feedback, which includes instructions for improvement, is typically preferred over messages which simply communicate negative evaluations of performance. Receivers may be more satisfied when feedback includes encouragement, particularly for recipients who believe they can exercise control over their work environment. Employees who receive ambiguous feedback are inclined to interpret it positively and often choose not to make behavioral adjustments. Recipients prefer to receive negative feedback in private but may be appreciative when positive feedback is shared in public.
The link to performance improvements may be enhanced when feedback is linked clearly to performance goals. Timely, specific, and concrete feedback processes have been linked to positive performance outcomes in some studies, in contrast to feedback which is delayed, ambiguous, and abstract. Frequent and informal feedback may result in more rapid performance adjustments than occasional, formal feedback such as that communicated in annual performance reviews. Effectiveness is enhanced when recipients receive feedback about the performance of their peers (normative feedback) in addition to feedback about their personal performance. Some evidence supports the efficacy of feedback systems that include multiple raters, credible feedback sources, developmental information as opposed to merely evaluative information, and clear ties to organizational rewards, such as salary increases and promotions.
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