Pull, Don’t Push: Designing Effective Feedback Systems
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Contributor: Katherine Klein, Edward H. Bowman Professor of Management, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Create feedback systems that improve, rather than diminish, performance.
It’s a commonly held belief, one that gets played out daily in organizations around the world: Employees who receive performance feedback are much more likely to improve their performance than those who don’t get feedback. But research tells us that it’s simply not true. Typically, performance after feedback improves only modestly—and over one third of the time, it actually gets worse. People who receive positive feedback often see no need for change, and those who receive negative feedback often react with skepticism, discouragement, and anger, dismissing the evaluation as inaccurate, unhelpful, or unfair.
But if feedback doesn’t always and easily improve performance, what should managers do? Research suggests that “pulling” is a better idea than “pushing.” Pulling entails teaching, coaching, and developing employees rather than pushing—or correcting—them. Pulling says, “Here’s how to get ahead in this company; we’ll provide you with guidelines and coaching to help you master these skills and behaviors.” Pushing says “You’re not doing very well.” In employees’ eyes, it’s likely to be the difference between a motivating challenge and a demoralizing reprimand.
To get favorable results from performance evaluations, evaluators must set positive expectations, showing that they believe improvements can be made, and that the feedback itself—even negative feedback—is an opportunity to learn rather than a punitive final word. They should also be willing to assist with concrete steps toward the suggested improvements, including coaching and goal-setting. Done correctly, performance feedback can lead to improvements—but don’t forget to “pull” for those improvements by making the desired skills and behaviors clear and helping people acquire them.